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Following her medical leave-of-absence for depression and anxiety, Sandra (played by Marion Cotillard) gets notice she has been laid off from her job at the factory. The plant’s 16 other employees have agreed to work overtime to do her job, and in exchange, earn €1,000 ($1,400) each.

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Two Days, One Night
Written by
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Directed by
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring
Marion Cotillard
Country
USA
Language
English

The screenplay for Two Days, One Night, the latest film from Belgium's Dardenne brothers, should be taught in schools: It's concise, compelling and low-budget. A married mother of two has one weekend to persuade her co-workers at a small solar-panel factory to forgo a bonus and let her keep her job. As with any good thriller, there's a prize, a quest and a ticking clock.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, siblings in their early 60s, are among Europe's most admired directors, twice winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Their seven features since 1996, usually shot like hand-held documentaries, are all survival tales of men and women struggling to find jobs and shelter, care for children and avoid trouble.

If there's a Dardennes formula, it's a versatile one. Two Days, One Night specifically addresses the post-2008 era of corporate evaluations, voluntary layoffs and downsizing. The dilemma that Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her co-workers face is credible. Following her medical leave-of-absence for depression and anxiety, she gets notice she has been laid off from her job at the factory. The plant's 16 other employees have agreed to work overtime to do her job, and in exchange, earn €1,000 ($1,400) each.

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But there's a loophole: A friend tells Sandra that the foreman, Jean-Marc (Dardennes regular, Olivier Gourmet), unfairly influenced the vote, implying that if Sandra didn't go, someone else would lose their job. The plant manager agrees to let them vote again on the Monday morning with a secret ballot. At the urging of her husband, restaurant kitchen worker Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra decides to speak to as many of her co-workers as she can before Monday.

The action is set in the industrial suburban sprawl of Liège, where Sandra visits her co-workers in houses, apartments, laundromats, pubs and stores, as they go about their weekend business. In each case, she pushes herself forward and forces herself to repeat her pitch: She needs her job, the foreman influenced the vote and she wants their support at a new vote on Monday morning.

In each case, we don't know who will appear on the other side of the door: a friend with a sympathetic ear or any angry colleague who rejects her claim. Through the two days, we have a series of glimpses into people living on low incomes, immigrants, single mothers, or people working black market jobs to pay for kids' schooling. All of them would find a €1,000 pay bump a significant help. (The lowest paid contract employee earns €150, or $211, a week) The most angry man of the group abuses her and knocks down a co-worker who tries to intervene. Another man (Timur Magomedgadzhiev), whom she interrupts as he's coaching a children's soccer team, begins to weep uncontrollably, ashamed that he voted against her.

There are lots of sociological details: Almost everyone in this film wears jeans, as if it were a uniform. Also, nobody seems to cook. With the exception of a baked dessert tart at the film's beginning, every meal is either takeout, or eaten in a bakery or restaurant. Dining out may be expensive, but there's no time for home cooking.

As usual, the Dardenne brothers are never heavy-handed, but also not coy about their politics. The central action of Two Days, One Night is political: going door-to-door canvassing for votes. The theme is the psychological isolation and divisiveness of a rocky economy. We don't know specifically why Sandra suffers from anxiety and depression, except that, by implication, the social stresses reach a fracture point. Her sympathetic, watchful husband is fearful that the stress may cause a relapse. Sandra keeps popping anti-anxiety Xanax pills, tightroping on the edge of panic, with Cotillard's expressive eyes registering each tug of fear and hope.

In the past, the Dardennes have relied on a cast of regulars and unknown actors. Cotillard, an Oscar-winner for La vie en rose, is a high-profile star, but her off-screen celebrity here is a moot point. She subsumes herself completely into the Dardennes' universe, a place where the burden of just getting by can be overwhelming. Her Sandra is pale, gaunt and stricken until, incrementally, through the empathy of others, she begins to recover her dignity and composure, and the light returns to her face.

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