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‘Two Days, One Night’ Review: Marion Cotillard Gives a Face to Economic Desperation

The acclaimed Dardenne brothers work with an international star for the first time, but their filmmaking style remains understated and grittily poetic

There was a time in our society when we could still believe in the power of the underdog, and in the large-scale triumphs represented in uplifting films like “Norma Rae” and “Erin Brockovich.” But as the economic inequality gap continues to widen and corporations run amok and unchecked, we find ourselves settling for stories where merely surviving feels like a big win.

In “Two Days, One Night,” Sandra (Marion Cotillard) isn’t out to unionize a factory or to expose environmental disaster; she just wants her job back. After Sandra took a sick leave to treat her depression, her bosses noticed that 16 employees could do the work of 17, provided they work a little overtime. Given the choice between a 1,000-euro bonus or keeping Sandra on, her co-workers opted for the bonus.

Learning that the foreman lied and said that if Sandra didn’t get laid off, another employee would, Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces their boss to take another secret ballot on Monday to decide Sandra’s fate, giving Sandra the weekend to find her colleagues at home so she can plead her case.

For most of those employees, the choice inflicted upon them by the bosses puts them in a bind; they don’t necessarily want to see Sandra fired, but they sure could use that bonus. For her part, Sandra isn’t exactly dying to plead for her job over and over again; she’s prone to crying jags and Xanax-popping, and it’s only the support of Juliette, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and other workplace supporters that get the emotionally fragile Sandra through the weekend.

TwoDaysbWritten and directed by acclaimed Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “Two Days, One Night” takes a damning look at how the modern economy handles the working class without ever overstating the case. These directors favor long takes, minimal music and naturalist settings, and they allow character and place to tell a story so that the dialogue doesn’t always have to. Cotillard is the first international movie star to appear in one of their films, but they haven’t slicked up their style at all to accommodate her presence.

Some awards pundits are praising Cotillard’s “bravery” for making a movie in which she wears no makeup, as though that were akin to, say, Charlize Theron’s metamorphosis for “Monster.” (Granted, Sandra’s visible-bra-straps-under-tank-top look is miles away from Cotillard’s usual red-carpet chic.) Cotillard’s performances have often held me at a distance, but not this time; she conveys both Sandra’s vulnerability and her ultimate dogged determination without overplaying either, and it’s some of her most absorbing work yet.

The supporting cast is a mix of Dardenne regulars like Rongione and non-professionals (who reflect the ethnic and gender diversity of a factory environment), and they make each of Sandra’s visits a fascinating little vignette that’s part of a larger plot.

The ending is too perfect to be discussed here, except that it should be taught in screenwriting classes as an example of how to reflect terrible circumstances while still giving your protagonist — and your audience — a break. It’s both brutal and redemptive, and it never violates the film’s surgical examination of proletarian exploitation by slapping a big red bow on it.

The chasm of the wealth gap and the slow destruction of the middle class should matter to us all, and films like “Two Days, One Night” remind us of the human faces affected by corporate greed.