Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have carved out a magnificent filmmaking career built on exploring one simple but essential subject: the consequences of and rationalizations for our moral choices. Two Days, One Night continues that pursuit with a film that's not just one magnificent character study, but a dozen smaller, equally fascinating ones.
Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a married mother planning to return to work at a solar-panel-manufacturing plant after taking leave to deal with clinical depression. But she learns that the plant is planning to lay her off in a cost-cutting move when co-workers vote to give themselves a year-end bonus rather than preserving her job. Eventually, however, she's able to convince her super-visor for one more chance: A new vote will be taken on the following Monday, giving Sandra the weekend to ask each individual co-worker to give up their bonus so that she can keep her job.
If the premise seems like it would result in a repetitive sequence of scenes, that's part of the point; the arduous process of Sandra making one plea after another, so hard on the heels of such a deep depression, is a key element of the story. Yet, it's also remarkable that the Dardennes invest so much in making each individual response so distinctive, and so understandable. There are no villains among those who can't bring themselves to surrender their extra salary, yet it's still viscerally emotional watching one co-worker break down in shame at having voted against her the first time.
The centerpiece, however, is Cotillard's stunning Oscar-nominated performance as Sandra, which captures the despair of mental illness with wrenching honesty. Cotillard is able to convey the effort involved in simply moving through a regular day, let alone one that requires her to beg for her job. The final moral choice she is forced to make is a unique kind of triumph—yet also perfectly characteristic of the drama the Dardennes always wring out of human frailty.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT