Two Days, One Night’ is a transportive experience

Cotillard (with Rongione) ponders her grim fate.
Mike D'Angelo

Four and a half stars

Two Days, One Night Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Marion Cotillard’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress a few weeks ago took numerous pundits by surprise—they’d predicted that her slot would go to the hard-campaigning Jennifer Aniston, looking anti-glam in the downer indie Cake. What’s more, Cotillard gave highly acclaimed performances in two films last year; her turn in The Immigrant, which is (mostly) in English, seemed the more likely bet, as acting nominations in foreign languages are rare. Ultimately, Academy members may simply have been unable to resist the overwhelming pathos of 2014’s very best film. Forget Best Actress—in a just world, Two Days, One Night would have been nominated for Best Picture, and now be considered a near-lock to win.

Written and directed by Belgium’s great brother team, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night actually unfolds over roughly three days; the title refers to the period during which Cotillard’s character, a factory worker named Sandra, is actively canvassing her co-workers. Before the film begins, the company’s 16 employees are asked to choose between allowing Sandra, who’d been hospitalized while battling clinical depression, to have her old job back, or receiving their annual 1,000-Euro bonus. Almost everybody predictably voted to keep their bonus, but the boss, after hearing that the initial vote had involved some shifty lobbying, agrees to let Sandra conduct a second vote on the following Monday morning. That gives her the weekend to meet with each co-worker individually and plead her case.

In lesser hands, such a story might have resulted in a tediously repetitive tract. The Dardennes use it to explore the entire vast continuum of human nature, ranging from a woman who instructs her young daughter to tell Sandra she’s not home to a man who breaks down sobbing at his shame for having voted for the bonus the first time. What’s more, Sandra is no noble crusader—she’s still depressive, though functional enough now to return to work, and has to force herself to overcome the distaste she feels asking friends to give up a significant amount of money for her sake. Cotillard makes this woman’s struggle to be acknowledged as having value—by herself as much as by anyone else—seem both Sisyphean and heroic. In truth, even the Oscars are small potatoes. The world would be a better place if everyone were required to watch Two Days, One Night, and then think hard about its lessons.

Dardenne brothers 101

Since making their breakthrough drama La Promesse in 1996, brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have turned out a new film every three years like clockwork—each one set in Belgium and combining stringent naturalism with surprisingly gripping narratives. Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005) both won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but the Dardennes have yet to make a movie that doesn’t qualify as a must-see—even their least beloved effort, Lorna’s Silence (2008), makes most other foreign films look timid by comparison. Beginners should start with 2002’s The Son, about a carpenter who tracks down the juvenile delinquent who accidentally killed his only child, and then takes the boy on as an apprentice.

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