Naturalistic and probing, in Two Days, One Night, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike) tell an apparently simple, linear story with astonishing depth. Recovering from depression, wife and mother Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work at a solar panel factory after sick leave. Once there, she discovers that her bosses have made her co-workers a Sophie’s Choice: take a thousand Euro bonus and lay-off Sandra, or save Sandra and sacrifice the cash.
It’s not surprising that Sandra’s colleagues choose the bonus over their colleague’s needs. But, when management allows a last-minute recount, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) urges her to visit each and every individual to plead her case. This reluctant quest — a married mother on the verge of a second nervous breakdown travelling door-to-door over two days and one night — opens up a working class world to the audience. We see into the lives of the others from the factory and their impact on the sobbing Sandra.
Oscar-winner Cotillard (Ma Vie en Rose) portrays Sandra in jeans and a tank top, bra straps showing, hair clutched uncombed in a pony-tail; far more unkempt than the actress who plays her, who is the face of Lady Dior handbags. As Sandra, Cotillard’s walk rides low in her hips, she pops Xanax and, defeated, she retreats to her bed where she lies in a fetal position under the duvet. But none of this is overwrought. She melds perfectly in the Dardennes’ matter-of-fact style; the first true star these Belgian brothers have cast as a lead.
[Related: TIFF Critic’s Pick: ‘Two Days, One Night]
Cotillard has become one of my favorite actresses. Whether in high-gloss blockbuster mode in The Dark Knight Rises or period perfect in The Immigrant, she works from a very quiet core. Her characters always have a life beyond the screen, a before and after. These women don’t ask you for permission, they compel you to watch. The biggest emotions register in tiny gestures.
While Sandra’s struggle and transformation is central to Two Days, One Night, the drama is less a star vehicle than an ethical exploration. Do you leave your morals at the door when you clock in? You may treat your family humanely at home, but the actions taken in pursuit of a paycheck also define your character. In reality, what you do at work is as much who you are as your private identity. In this competitive economy of layoffs and job insecurity, that certainly is cause for reflection, whether you’re American or Belgian