In the searing realism of Belgian filmmakers Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s new drama, “Two Days, One Night,” a working-class woman faces the disastrous prospect of losing her job.
Living paycheck to paycheck, Sandra and her husband, Manu, won’t be able to pay the mortgage on the home they share with their two small children if she’s suddenly unemployed.
French actress Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner for her performance in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose,” plays the vulnerable Sandra. Subject to depression, Sandra recently took medical leave from her work at a small solar panel manufacturing company.
During her absence, Sandra’s boss, Dumont, realized that the company functioned just as well with 16 workers as it did with 17. He gives his workers a choice. They can vote to receive a bonus of 1,000 euros each, but if they do, he will lay Sandra off. Because making ends meet is difficult for all of Sandra’s co-workers, they vote for their bonuses.
Sandra learns about the vote on a Friday during a phone call from a friend and co-worker, Juliette (Catherine Salée).
“No, no. Juliette, no,” she laments to the sympathetic bearer of bad news.
After the call, the shaken Sandra whispers to herself, “You mustn’t cry. Hold up. You mustn’t cry.” Her attempt at making a brave face falls apart in tears.
“We’ll go back to social housing,” the despairing Sandra tells her husband.
“No, we won’t,” Manu insists. “Don’t give in. You have to fight.”
Urgency enters the picture when Juliette phones Sandra a second time. She tells Sandra that Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), the company foreman, intimidated the other workers about the vote. That news sends Sandra racing back to the company to plead with her boss for another chance. Dumont, upon learning of Jean-Marc’s actions, agrees to a second vote on Monday.
More details about the unseen Jean-Marc and his unsavory tactics are revealed as the story unfolds. In the tense meantime, Sandra has two days and one night to lobby her co-workers to vote in her favor and against their bonuses.
“Two Days, One Night” tells a simple story bound by a tight deadline. From this scenario, the Dardennes extract wrenching drama. Whether Sandra wins or loses, someone will lose badly in the film’s corrosive rob Peter to pay Paul scenario.
Cotillard is the first internationally famous actress to work with acclaimed indie filmmakers the Dardenne brothers. Although the Dardennes didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, Cotillard’s forceful work in “Two Days, One Night” earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress in a leading role.
If Sandra is to keep her job, she must lift herself up, be courageous, push past the crippling episodes of weeping that overcome her. Cotillard shows the burdensome weight of likely failure in Sandra’s face and on her bare, dressed for summer shoulders.
Fabrizio Rongione co-stars as Manu, Sandra’s husband and most important supporter. The constant push and pull between them is among the story’s driving elements.
Sandra and Manu form a team in her struggle to persuade her co-workers to change their minds. Manu drives his wife to the homes of more than a dozen workers, but it’s left to Sandra to plead her case alone while he waits in the car.
Sandra’s quest becomes a rollercoaster ride. Her co-worker’s reactions can be surprising. She also comes to feel much humiliation in having to ask.
“Two Days, One Night” throws more vexing, poisonous developments into the mix before it reaches a conclusion that’s not a conventional happy ending. The Dardenne brothers are too wise in their storytelling to settle for easy answers. That makes their new film all the more powerful.