In an industrial town in Belgium, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a young mother, works at a small solar-panel factory. One day she suffers from a nervous breakdown and as a result has to take some time off work. As the movie opens we see her putting the pieces back together again after the incident with the help of her caring, supportive husband, with whom she has two small children. She is still fragile, but determined and ready to go back to work.
As she makes her way back to the factory, she encounters the truth of what has transpired while she was gone: management realised that they could cut costs by offering to up everyone’s pay by €1,000 each if they all started working to cover parts of Sandra’s job, thus making her redundant. Her co-workers, as hard-up financially as Sandra or worse, all took the offer. Sandra, in shock and disbelief but possessed of a magnificent spirit despite her recent illness, somehow convinces management to schedule another vote. It is a Friday afternoon; Sandra has two days and one night to talk to each of her colleagues and convince them to not vote against her on the Monday.
As Sandra frantically makes pit stop after pit stop over the arduous weekend, however, the audience realises the subtle semantic shift that lies at the heart of the whole matter: “I didn’t vote against you,” one of her co-workers explains. “I voted for my bonus.” Sandra knows the painful economic trials her peers are constantly exposed to. She knows, and on her weekend odyssey she sees, and for a creature of such empathy and understanding as her this is heartrending. They are all of them the same victims of an uncaring system; deemed unimportant by capital and treated with contempt by management. And yet she has no choice. She has to fight for her job.
If this is all sounding like this is an important issue movie, well, that’s because it is. But the Dardenne brothers, who have been making social-realist movies about Important Things their whole lives, have with Two Days, One Night harnessed all the power of a thriller to tell Sandra’s story. They have managed to capture exactly the pulse-pounding energy that fills a person when they are faced with a task that they know they must accomplish at all costs, all the while injecting into this a nuanced understanding of the grey moral areas in life. The Dardenne brothers do not need to break into the mainstream, but if this movie makes that happen then it will have been well earned indeed.
And what an asset they have on their side. Marion Cotillard belongs to a group of performers to whom I have not personally been able to warm to in English-speaking roles but who I cannot take my eyes off when I hear them in their native tongues (see also Penelope Cruz and Omar Sy). Throughout the movie the camera almost never leaves Sandra, who — comforted and helped by her wonderful husband (Fabrizio Rongione) when in need — goes through the most harrowing of emotional roller coasters. The shadow of her illness hangs over her head and a dangerous yearning for the relief of Xanax threatens to engulf her. She suffers from periodic panic attacks and debilitating bouts of depression. She bleeds for the plight of others as she sees how losing their bonus would affect them and their families. And yet through all this she must be pragmatic, resourceful, and driven, intruding upon their lives in the only days they have to actually live them, causing disruption and sometimes outright strife as she pleads her case. Cotillard handles all this with humility and with a magnificent range. Her performance encapsulates in it a vast swathe of the spectrum of human experience, and she makes the movie a heart-breaking joy to watch.
Two Days, One Night is a grand, resonant epic on a small and intimate scale. It speaks to some of the largest issues facing people around the world, but it does so with the urgency and formal greatness of the best thrillers. You should see it.