Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been writing and directing spare, downbeat dramas together for nearly 30 years. Their protagonists—blue-collar victims of circumstance—have almost always been grounded by the routine of their work. Their jobs serve as stabilizing constants; disrupt the routine, and the house of cards they’ve patched together crumbles, their identities collapsing with it.

That’s true of the brothers’ newest, music-less masterpiece, Two Days, One Night. Today’s economy has destabilized the jobs that give the Dardennes’ characters their sense of meaning. But instead of fostering solidarity, the self-serving bosses (including one particularly repulsive supervisor played by Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet) pit the workers against one another, leaving them with impossible decisions.

When we first observe Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard), she’s lying in bed, the ringing of her phone barely waking her from a Xanax-induced haze. A handheld camera (a Dardenne staple) tracks her through the small middle-class apartment she shares with her loving husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione)—a blue-
collar cook—and their two children.

Sandra is ill-equipped for her current situation, one that gradually comes to light as the Dardennes drip-feed the facts surrounding her dilemma and she interacts, one by one, with members of the large supporting cast, many of whom—in typical Dardenne fashion—have never acted before. But first, Sandra abruptly hangs up the phone on her friend and co-worker, Juliette (Catherine Salée), telling herself after, “You mustn’t cry.”

As we’ll come to discover, Sandra is being laid off after a recent hospitalization for depression—a condition that is being triggered again, if her uncontrollable crying and unwillingness to leave bed are any evidence.

However, through Juliette’s efforts, their employer Dumont (Baptiste Sornin) has agreed to let Sandra keep her job at his small solar-panel company—but only if a majority of her 16 fellow employees agree to forgo their 1,000 euro bonus. Sandra has a weekend to convince her co-workers to save her position, or she and her family will be forced into public housing.

Sandra doesn’t convince the first person she contacts. Although discouraged, she successfully appeals to the second, Kader (Ben Hamidou); heart racing and spirits lifted, she swallows her pride and continues.

The Dardennes are notorious for following their protagonists from behind, with their longtime cinematographer, Alain Marcoen, framing his handheld shots behind their subjects’ heads, allowing us to peer over their shoulders and experience life as they see it. (Other filmmakers, like Darren Aronofsky with 2008’s The Wrestler, have—ahem—borrowed this stylistic flourish.) But no more.

Working for the first time with an international star in a lead role, rather than the nonprofessionals they’ve typically plucked from obscurity, they capitalize on Cotillard’s deeply expressive face, downplaying her natural beauty and finding a fractured psyche within her eyes. In shifting their usual point of view and placing their unflinching gaze squarely on the face of a seasoned professional, the Dardennes have captured one of the most naturalistic performances in a directing career known for cultivated kitchen-sink realism. And for her efforts, Cotillard has earned her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress, after winning the golden statuette for her performance as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. Less showy, this is even stronger work.

Waking from a nightmare in the passenger seat of the family car as Manu drives her from one co-worker’s residence to another, Sandra pops another Xanax—a source of ongoing concern for her incredible husband, who has as much faith in his wife as she does in her pills.

Sandra finds Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) on a soccer field, where the young man coaches children on the weekends; seeing her on the sidelines, he breaks down, placing his hands on hers as he buckles over sobbing. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he tells her through his tears before admitting, “I feel ashamed that I agreed to vote for my bonus.” He agrees to give it up for her sake.

If only everyone else was in a position to be so compassionate. Turned down earlier over the phone by Hicham (Hicham Slaoui), Sandra runs into him at a convenience store, discovering that he works a second job there to help provide for his family.

“I’m sorry,” he says, reiterating that he’s unable to help. “It’s a year’s worth of gas and electric bills.”

The harsh truth of the film is that most of these people aren’t selfish; they’re simply struggling to get by, like so many people are. Whether that bonus is earmarked for utilities or children’s tuition, mortgages or home upkeep, it’s something that’s not easily given up.

And we witness this, time and again, as the Dardennes are steadfast in showing us each encounter. Although most begin cordially, nearly every permutation plays out differently, and unexpectedly. Fists are thrown, more Xanax are popped, and one woman even decides to leave her husband. “I’ve never decided anything for myself before,” says Anne (Christelle Cornil), who doesn’t start the weekend as one of Sandra’s closer friends, but becomes one as it wears on.

While I’m loath to tell you how this film turns out, it’s not nearly as depressing as it sounds. For 95 minutes, we’re exposed to some of the best and worst of humanity, as well as the sad state of how many businesses are now run. But it’s the kindness and generosity that you’ll remember—and the changes of heart that don’t come frequently enough.

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) ****

Starring Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Baptiste Sornin, Ben Hamidou, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Hicham Slaoui, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Alain Eloy, Fabienne Sciascia, Philippe Jeusette, Christelle Cornil and Olivier Gourmet. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. At Kendall Square.

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