Even if you don’t think you’ve seen a film by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, you have, sort of. The astringent and breathless style they pioneered in their 1996 breakout film, La Promesse—realist, handheld, raw, off-kilter, always in motion, ready to explode — has been coopted by indies from Bucharest to the Catskills. Even American TV shows (from The Wire on down) echo their work. The best of the copycats range from Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, from 2007, to Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 heartstopper A Separation.
It’s a style fitted perfectly to the Dardennes’ stories, which are always that of brutally simple dilemmas brought about by socioeconomic crisis. Their best films, Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and L’Enfant (2005), all pivot on the desperation of bottom-classers lost in the neoliberalistic now.
That their sensibility has become the global standard for serious, socially conscious filmmaking hardly dims the fire in the belly of their new film, Two Days, One Night. At its center is Marion Cotillard, intensely inhabiting a besieged working-class Everygirl who occupies a vortex of stress the Dardennes have down to a science.
She’s Sandra, a young Belgian wife and mom, woken from a deep daytime sleep by a bad phone call. Slowly, we gather a few things. One, she’s crushed by depression, popping Xanax and sometimes barely able to stand. Two, she’s been on medical leave from her solar-panel factory because of her breakdown — and her co-workers have worked overtime in her absence, essentially making her job redundant. Oddly (or perhaps just to us), the factory has let the workers vote to either have Sandra back or each get 1,000 Euro bonuses.
They voted her out. Rallying with friends and her tireless husband (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra confronts a supervisor and gets him to agree to a second vote that coming Monday — giving the frail, wilting woman two days to pursue her 16 co-workers at their homes and beg for her job back.
The entire film is her struggle to defy her inner desolation and perform this humiliating and Sisyphean task, and of course the Dardennes populate her voyage with an unpredictable but never contrived variety of responses from her co-workers. A common reply is “no.” They need the bonuses for their own families. But others waver, in a semi-socialized labor milieu that may seem odd to those Americans for whom voting against your own bonus for the sake of someone else’s job would be a non-starter. Some waffle, torn by union-style ethics. One bursts into tears from guilt over having voted Sandra out. Another co-worker is bullied by her husband into voting for the money — until she leaves him and joins Sandra on her road trip.
The film’s merciless structural rigor makes Cotillard the whole show, and she puts your heart in your throat. Sandra manages to stick her chin out some of the time, but you know that underneath she’s like a shattered window — a stiff breeze away from collapsing. The movie is an iron maiden, making you wonder when this fierce but helpless woman will give way to the mortification of needing to beg her working-class colleagues to sacrifice for her sake — and the specter of how horrifying life at work will be if she succeeds.
When she does surrender and confront the abyss, in a wordless scene with the Xanax that stops the clocks, Cotillard’s epically woeful eyes and congenital sense of victimhood make the movie pulse. Sandra runs the rings of Hell, but it’s almost all internal. Working as always in their home turf of Seraing, the Dardennes are peerless at pitting human frailty against the inhuman pressures of modern capitalism, and it’s the economic specificity of their stories that makes them universal. You get the vivid sense in Two Days, One Night that not only are decent factory jobs in Wallonia as precious as pearls, but also that workplace solidarity is a far more powerful, and therefore vexing, quantity in Western Europe than it is in the States.
After all, what the film’s characters endure is a micro-version of the moral combat every culture must wage between the hungers of corporate industry and the idealistic solidarity of unionization. And through them you see why unions are fading, in graphic domestic detail.