Most movies react to current events, but “Two Days, One Night” may be a harbinger of things to come. I won’t be surprised to see bosses adopt the technique of the supervisor in this Belgian import: He tells employees to choose between getting bonuses or keeping a co-worker on the payroll.
Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a mother in her 30s who returns from a leave of absence to learn she may be leaving permanently. The boss promises other employees 1,000 euros (about $1,500) but says Sandra can stay if they’ll use that money to pay her salary. He figures they’ll refuse, and he won’t be a villain for firing her.
She gets one weekend to meet with them individually, abetted by her supportive spouse (Fabrizio Rongione).
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the writer-directors behind the fine “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant,” subtly reveal reasons people might not want to help her: selfishness, anxiety that they’ll be let go if she isn’t, the belief that the money stands between them and eviction.
Co-workers offer to sacrifice, treat her as disposably as a used tissue, refuse regretfully. (An immigrant working two jobs, one on the black market, needs the dough to keep his heat and electricity on.) Eventually, Sandra wonders whether her quest may damage others more than it helps her family.
This may sound dull, but it isn’t. The Dardennes know how to tell low-key stories effectively, and Cotillard’s Academy Award-nominated performance builds toward the unexpected ending.
She often plays alluring women (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”); here she’s deglamorized and distressingly real. The Dardennes don’t even use a music soundtrack to indicate how we should feel, except for a couple of pop songs.
The brothers make all their films about people on the edge of financial or emotional ruin, and “Two Days” ties those themes together: It’s the story of a woman coming apart while the financial system that employs her does the same.
An American movie might find a way to set up a win-win situation for Sandra and her co-workers, but the Dardennes know better. In this world, the dogs eat each other, and the kennel-keeper looks on with a smile.