It is strange to think of "Two Days, One Night" as a thriller. The new drama from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the accomplished Belgium filmmaking brothers, stars French actress Marion Cotillard as a factory worker trying to win her job back.
But a thriller is exactly what they've created, setting the clock ticking on Sandra, who finds her spot on the production line has disappeared after co-workers vote for bonuses in lieu of her return from medical leave. A last-minute decision by the boss to take another vote gives Sandra the weekend — two days, one night — to persuade a majority to choose to give up their 1,000 extra euros for her.
Sandra's target is concrete; the villain more ambiguous. One employee is slightly implicated, but in a very offhanded way. An impersonal corporate bureaucracy certainly plays a role, the general lack of opportunity in the region another. The cost of raising a family could be seen as a culprit too. It's hard to blame her fellow workers; they're in as desperate straits as she. The story sounds all too familiar.
But that is a Dardenne specialty, making ordinary lives vibrantly real. Sandra's plight is one of those cautionary tales about life on the margins that the writer-directors are so drawn to in their narrative and documentary work.
Perhaps that long-held preference for society's underdogs — albeit ones they put through various prisms and paces — is what makes their film feel so rooted in our world. That "Two Days, One Night" retains such an organic sensibility, even with a major star in the lead, is credit to both filmmakers and actress.
Whether big-budget Hollywood affairs like "The Dark Knight Rises" or the lunacy of "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," one of the reasons Cotillard is so affecting in role after role is the lack of artifice in her performance. On screen, she simply is.
For all the excellent work the actress has done, including her unforgettable Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," in a sense "Two Days" challenges her to do even less. In so soulfully doing all that the Dardennes ask, the performance stands among her best.
She absorbs the young wife and mother's indecision, insecurity, depression and weariness down to the bone. It is fitting that we first see Sandra face down on the bed one afternoon, sleeping the sleep of denial. She lies perfectly still even as the afternoon sun shines on her face and the phone rings in her purse. When she finally reacts, it's not so much to wake up as to give up, just in another way.
The call is the bad news about her job, and what follows in the next handful of scenes is a finely wrought portrait of someone desperate to hold it together, but barely. Before her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), hurries in the door — he's gotten the news about her job loss too — the camera follows Sandra's movements. Director of photography Alain Marcoen, who has shot many of the Dardennes' films, allows us to feel like a fly on the wall.
The directors, never ones to squander a frame, also use those moments as a window into Sandra's family life: the well-cared for house, the tart in the oven for her kids, the line of toothbrushes in the bathroom — all set against the despair in Sandra's eyes, the tears that refuse to stop.
Manu brings action, the crisis and his insistence sending the couple to the factory so Sandra can plead her case with her boss. By morning, they are making the rounds, Sandra presenting her side on the door stoops and backyards of one co-worker after another.
There is a wealth of information about lives, relationships and the present-day economic realities of those who can ill afford to give up 1,000 euros in those visits. The conversation between Sandra and each one becomes a mini-drama. People whom she had known only casually at work become individuals with problems and issues of their own.
As Sandra, Manu and the kids drive from place to place, the Dardennes take us into the ecosystem of need. By the time they are through, they've cut a wide swath that covers most of the issues of the working class.
It is also a study in human nature. Some are open; others openly resent Sandra as a loafer on the job when she is there and the reason they weren't getting their bonuses in the first place. Cotillard is remarkable in these moments, using even the pitch of her shoulders to let their pain, anger, fear, kindness, forgiveness wash over her.
As Sandra swings between hopeful and hopeless, Manu is ever there, solid at her side. Whether she wins back her job, he seems to instinctively know if his wife is ever to return to some sort of normalcy — she has to move, to fight, to try. In this way, "Two Days, One Night" becomes the portrait of a marriage too.
Cotillard and Rongione, a frequent player in Dardenne films, make a good team. There is an ease between them as they move through one tense hour after another. For all of the outcomes you might fear for Sandra, Manu's commitment to her is not one of them.
Rongione is very like Cotillard in performance, comfortable in whosever skin he happens to have slipped into. They knit together this stressed couple and their desperate journey, a united front against difficult times.
'Two Days, One Night'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles