The international film market being what it is these days, we've become accustomed to big budgets or high-concept hooks or star-laden ensembles designed to ensure box office returns. So it's both refreshing and a little stunning to move through Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "Two Days, One Night," which features a bona fide star in Marion Cotillard but is defiantly minimalist in its plot and physical scale.
Cotillard plays Sandra, a Belgian woman reeling from a nervous breakdown and subsequent firing from her job at a solar-panel factory. Cradled uneasily by her fretting family (including Fabrizio Rongione as husband Manu), Sandra reluctantly accepts the suggestion that she should power past intense depression and fight for her job.
Partly, it's a matter of sheer desperation, her income being crucial to her family, and partly, it's a matter of principle: Having taken an unsympathetic view of her medical crisis, her employers laid her off and boosted her peers' pay. Because they also arguably circumvented due process, Sandra gets a two-day, one-night reprieve: a weekend to go around town visiting her coworkers in an attempt to convince them to vote to retain her. But a vote for Sandra also means forfeiting a 1,000 euro bonus, an amount her financially pinched fellow workers are hard-pressed to refuse.
And so Sandra makes the rounds, testing each co-worker's loyalty and sense of righteousness, pitted against the instinct of self-preservation in financially desperate times. The question Sandra must pose, over and over, is no easier to answer than it is for her to ask, and while the plot is by design entirely repetitive, each encounter reveals a new and entirely nuanced dynamic informed by the character she engages. The instantly dismissive or supportive are few; the agonized are many, recalling the crux of another French-language film, Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game": "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons."
Turning a philosophical question into drama, workplace ethics into moral fable, is delicate work, and the Dardennes once again prove they're up to the task of creating wrenching drama that avoids melodrama. Above all, Cotillard's heartbreakingly raw work carries the day, as she fleshes out both Sandra's suffering and emotional endurance on a journey of discovery that the latter, not the former, defines her.
Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements. One hour, 35 minutes.