Who’s your favorite pair of Belgian filmmaking brothers? Mine is probably Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. They arrived on the international scene in the mid-1990s (when they were both in their early 40s), and have since won multiple prizes at Cannes and other fancy places for their naturalistic films about the working class (“Rosetta,” “Lorna’s Silence,” “The Kid with the Bike”).
Employment, or the lack thereof, is again the subject in “Two Days, One Night,” a simple yet riveting drama about the dog-eat-dog world one finds in the workplace. At the outset, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a factory worker recently laid low by illness, learns that her boss has forced the other 16 employees to vote on her fate: either Sandra gets laid off and they each get a 1,000 euro bonus, or Sandra keeps her job and there’s no bonus. The vote wasn’t quite unanimous, but it was pretty heavily on the side you’d expect.
Sandra’s co-worker and friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) convinces the boss, Dumont (Baptiste Sornin), to hold a new vote on Monday on the grounds that Friday’s vote was tainted by another worker’s spreading misinformation. The reprieve gives Sandra the weekend to approach each employee individually and make a personal appeal for a vote in her favor. With the support and encouragement of her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works in food service for presumably not much money, she sets out on her miserable, humiliating campaign.
The first encounter is over the phone, shot in one long, unbroken take so we can appreciate Cotillard’s ability to display a wide range of powerful emotions without assistance from anyone. Subsequent appeals are in person. A pattern soon emerges: the co-worker asks Sandra how she’s feeling, says they heard there would be another vote, asks how the others she’s talked to have responded. Nearly everyone remarks on the unfairness of the situation and points out that 1,000 euros is a lot of money. (Several of them are having money troubles of their own.) Sandra has to admit that if the situation were reversed, she’d probably vote for the money too. But she really needs this job, and we understand the need to be emotional as well as financial.
There isn’t much extraneous detail in the film, or even much exposition. It’s only gradually that we fully understand the nature of Sandra’s illness (depression), or what sort of work they do at her job (make solar panels). The Dardennes don’t dwell on the outrageous cruelty of Sandra’s boss’s actions, or comment on whether it’s even legal (I don’t know how they do things in Belgium). Their purpose, as usual, is to look at how human beings treat each other under difficult circumstances, and to do so sympathetically.
One of Sandra’s co-workers weeps with shame that he ever voted against her. A pair of workers, father and son, are driven to fisticuffs over it. One woman who wants to support Sandra gets into an argument about it with her husband, then decides she’s tired of being pushed around by him. Others refuse to budge, saying they need the money; some are polite about it, others indignant. One avoids the discussion by hiding when Sandra rings the doorbell.
Though there is repetition in the encounters, a theme starts to develop as we see Sandra find strength in her supporters. Whether there are enough of them to save her job, I won’t say, of course — and it hardly matters. The point is that Sandra has suffered great emotional stress recently, and any measure of support is valuable. We can handle just about anything if we have people to handle it with us. Cotillard’s tender, heartbreaking performance as a woman struggling to hold on to her sanity and dignity makes the message impossible to forget.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; French with subtitles; )
Originally published at Complex.