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Writer/directors Jean-Pierre, left, and Luc Dardenne won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for their 1999 film Rosetta.

'The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons." This maxim from Jean Renoir's classic 1939 film The Rules of the Game cuts like a double-edged knife, suggesting that alienation and identification with others are two sides of the same coin.

It's a famous line, and it was on the minds of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne while they were preparing their fine new drama Two Days, One Night. But while the Belgian brothers are ardent admirers – and some might say impressive inheritors – of Renoir's hard-edged cinema, they also sought to tweak the line's meaning a bit.

"We wanted to show something beyond the idea that everyone has their reasons," Luc explained in an interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. "The question is, can you go beyond your own reasons, whatever they are, and reach out for something that's bigger than yourself? If you can't do it, then you can't do it, but if you can look beyond your own needs, it's very important to try."

The film's main character, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), has a pressing need. She has only one weekend to persuade her factory co-workers to forgo their pay bonus so she can keep her job, which has been declared redundant by management. The result of her quest is a film that feels like an open-air variation on a classic courtroom drama. Sandra, a wife and mother whose resolve to help support her family is weakened by a depressive ailment, becomes both the prosecutor and the plaintiff rolled into one fragile package, making her pleas to a jury of her peers whose sympathies are complicated by their own tenuous financial situations.

"It's the story of a woman who is suffering from depression and is trying to escape it through the support that she receives from others," said Jean-Pierre, who at 63 is three years older than his brother. "She's looking for a sense of solidarity, and that helps her with her illness."

The battle to stay gainfully employed is not a new theme in the Dardenne brothers' cinema. Their 1999 breakthrough Rosetta – which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes from a jury headed by David Cronenberg and turned the directing duo into a much-imitated brand name – was about a young woman desperately trying to keep a job at a waffle stand. Two Days, One Night could be taken as a spiritual sequel to Rosetta except where that film's star was a then-unknown actress (Émilie Dequenne), the Dardennes have moved on to a bona fide star in Cotillard, a performer whose beauty and poise often makes it difficult for her to wholly disappear into roles.

"We decided on [Cotillard] because she has a certain fragility," Luc said. "It's as if she's there, and then she's suddenly gone. And then she can turn it around from vulnerability to strength, and to a sense of life and wanting to be alive. It's how she is: She can seem absent and then there is this very concrete presence."

Cotillard is remarkable in the film, but Two Days, One Night is very much an ensemble piece. The Dardennes have typically built their films around bravura lead performances, but here they have created more than a dozen memorable small roles for Sandra's co-workers. "It's a group story," Jean-Pierre said. "All of the characters needed to have weight, even if they're only onscreen for a short period of time. They all need to hold their place. The questions that [Sandra] is asking them are important, but so are their answers."

Although intense and suspenseful, Two Days, One Night has moments of pleasure. A scene in which Sandra, her husband and one of her more supportive co-workers rock out to Van Morrison's Gloria during a nighttime drive may be the most rapturous in any Dardenne film. The lift it provides was conceived of strategically, and a bit nostalgically.

"It's exhilarating music. It allows us to create a moment with a little bit of joy. It's a shared thing and it's another kind of solidarity," Jean-Pierre explained.

"It was our generation," Luc added. "It's our song."

And that's reason enough.

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