When we praise the virtues of "community," most of us mean our extended family, friends and neighbors. But how much would we do for the coworker in the next cubicle, or across the factory floor? In a dog-eat-dog economy, how much do we expect that coworker to sacrifice for us in return?
That provocative question drives Two Days, One Night, the latest low-key naturalist drama from Belgian fraternal filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, L'Enfant). The film gave Marion Cotillard a reason to show up at last Sunday's Oscars — she received a Best Actress nomination — but her exposed-nerve performance isn't the only reason to see it. Two Days is a brand of film we rarely see in the U.S.: It depicts the lives of people struggling to make ends meet with neither preaching nor condescension. And it finds genuine dramatic interest in a fictional dilemma that panders to the fantasies of no moviegoer alive.
Cotillard plays Sandra, a mom of two preparing to return to her job at a solar-panel manufacturer after an extended leave. Then she learns her boss has given the other employees a choice between making her redundant and forfeiting their bonuses. With Sandra's job on the chopping block, a friend manages to arrange for a second, silent ballot. The reprieve gives Sandra a single weekend to persuade her coworkers to choose her interests over their own.
Emotionally frail and popping Xanax, Sandra initially refuses to "beg" for her job. But, with the coaching of her patient, sympathetic husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she soon finds herself going door-to-door and doing just that. Some of her coworkers are friends; others are practically strangers to her. All of them have plans for the bonus. None can easily part with enough money to buy a year's worth of gas and electricity, as one character notes, whatever their feelings about Sandra herself. But Sandra has her own motivator: Without her income, her family will lose their home.
In its own subtle way, Two Days is a working-class-hero film, but don't expect sweeping crane shots or a swelling orchestra to underscore Sandra's triumphs. (The musical soundtrack is limited to songs playing on her car radio, including a rousing version of Van Morrison's "Gloria.") Don't expect standard plot beats, either: There's a grinding repetition in Sandra's recitation of her tale of woe to one person after another. But that's the point. The gauntlet of banal humiliations she passes through is as tedious as political canvassing in a democracy, and as necessary.
Cotillard is particularly skilled at portraying wounded birds who turn out to have spines of steel under pressure. (Her turn in last year's fine costume drama The Immigrant is another example.) At first, Sandra's meek fragility is off-putting, even as we make allowances for the mental breakdown that appears to be in her recent past. But as we watch, she finds her strength — despite setbacks — and forms new bonds with people she's seeing in their home environments for the first time.
When we talk about work in a nonunionized world, we tend to oppose individual to collective interests, self-reliance to solidarity. Two Days questions that duality: Sandra learns to fight for herself by enlisting the support of others. (And she does so face-to-face, the hardest kind of appeal to make — or to ignore.) Acting in her family's self-interest means convincing other people not to act in their own. But it also, at crucial moments, means setting her own needs aside to honor the new mutual commitments she's made.
Two Days is far from a conventional hero's journey, but it's a compelling parable of the choices we make to survive and thrive at work. And it suggests that some of those choices, in their own small way, do change the world.