Belgian sibling directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are best known for taut, bittersweet tales of struggling working-class characters, captured in a naturalistic style that creates an immediate sense of involvement in their lives. To that end, their latest effort "Two Days, One Night" boils down their appeal to its primal essence: Set over the course of a weekend in which a depressed young mother struggles to save her job, its deceptively simple premise belies a satisfying demonstration of their distinctive talents.
While the brothers have long focused on working with amateur performers, often children, "Two Days, One Night" marks their second feature after 2011's "The Kid With a Bike" (which co-starred Cecile De France) to include major name talent. In this case, Marion Cotillard appears in every scene as the frantic Sandra, who learns in the opening minutes that she's been laid off from her job at an energy plant just before the weekend. Fighting off tears in the mirror, she discovers a semblance of hope in the promise of a new vote among her co-workers come Monday. The options are put in the blunt terms of a bureaucratic Catch-22: "Raise or Sandra."
So begins a mesmerizing odyssey that, despite its prolonged timeline, maintains the feeling of real-time events unfolding before our eyes. Backed by her supportive husband Manu (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra launches on a desperate campaign to urge her co-workers to support her employment over the boost to their salaries. Much of the movie relies on Cotillard's jittery expressions as she veers from tentatively hopeful to despondent and back again, sometimes within a matter of minutes, reflecting the ever-changing stability of job security among the lower class.
Masters of pacing, the Dardennes typically rely on lengthy tracking shots that follow their protagonists as they walk from place to place. That approach resurfaces here, but the minimalist setup for "Two Days, One Night" affords them the opportunity to sit still just as often and let the actors do the heavy lifting: As Sandra visits one co-worker after another -- at home, working odd jobs, hanging out with their families-- seeking at least nine supporters to guarantee a successful vote, many of the movie's key conversations involve Sandra facing another person and steadily gathering the courage to ask for support, then bracing for a wide variety of reactions.
Though it belongs to a filmmaking precedent invented by the directors themselves, "Two Days, One Night" borrows a page from no less than "High Noon," with Sandra playing the role of a fragile Gary Cooper battling to rally the town in her favor. And just as that movie culminated with its lead going solo for the eventual showdown, Sandra -- no matter the words of encouragement offered by some of her colleagues -- must eventually face down her boss alone.
Cotillard's best work since "La Vie En Rose" unquestionably ranks as her most credible turn, as the actress demonstrates a fragility that never veers into the realm of overstatement. Despite its basic trajectory, her actions are littered with surprising moments, and each new co-worker she encounters adds another layer of texture to this delicate portrait of personal and professional priorities clashing with awkward results.
Though occasionally the filmmakers intentions take on a transparent quality, with Sandra's actions registering as blatant attempts to generate certain uneasy feelings, the series of encounters that comprise the bulk of the movie lend the proceedings a welcome degree of unpredictability. Her co-workers harbor a fascinating cross-section of sentiments, with some respectively declining and using their own needs as an excuse, while others berate her for even giving it a shot. Their sympathies range from hollow to sincere. Tensions rise and fall, opinions fluctuate, and Sandra's relationship to the scenario evolves with a fascinating ripple effect. Her burgeoning confidence regularly threatens to collapse until, with an unexpected twist, the full nature of her developing mindset comes to bloom in the final minutes.
Though her situation isn't a glamorous one, "Two Days, One Night" continues a tendency last seen in "The Kid With a Bike" in which the directors aim for a sense of uplift less blatant in earlier work like "L'Enfant," "Rosetta" and "Lorna's Silence." But these aren't your average crowdpleasers. With no soundtrack or melodramatic confrontations, the Dardennes plunge viewers into a terrifying world of unknown variables. The happy ending isn't rooted in a specific outcome so much as their characters' willingness to defy their limitations and live another day.
"Two Days, One Night" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films will release it in the U.S. later this year.