Two Days, One Night
7:30 p.m. nightly through Feb. 26 at Tampa Theatre
1 hour, 35 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Belgium's premier fraternal filmmaker duo, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike, L'Enfant), reunite for Two Days, One Night, another working-class character study that offers a contemporary parable on human dignity and loyalty. The deceptively low key, meticulously shot drama speaks to several arching realities of today: a sagging European/world economy, unchecked labor abuses, barbaric workplaces enabled by opportunistic bosses, an increasingly elusive middle class and the hope that you can still overcome and find humanity in the thick of it all.
The Dardennes' real-world opus begins with Sandra (Marion Cotillard) on a Friday afternoon while steeling herself to return to work after a temporary mental health leave. A phone call from friend and co-worker, Juliette (Catherine Salée), warns her that fellow employees at a small solar panel plant will vote for her to keep her job or a yearly 1,000-Euro bonus. Sandra’s manager masterminds the egregious ballot with the justification that a budgetary review has determined a need for 16, not 17 workers, a conclusion arrived at during Sandra's absence, when co-workers covered her shifts.
The news is devastating to Sandra. Unemployment is untenable to the mother of two who brings home the bigger of the two paychecks in her household. Supportive husband Manu (a sympathetic Fabrizio Rongione) urges Sandra not to surrender and prompts her to appeal to each coworker before Monday's vote.
The ensuing odyssey plays out like a Kurosawa-esque triptych. Sandra undergoes a series of successful and humiliating solicitations that yields a kaleidoscope of personalities, interactions and emotions. What's at first cringe-inducing becomes highly watchable as Sandra's tension mounts in hopes of winning over a majority of supporters. With a voyeuristic intimacy, we witness Sandra popping Xanax privately while maintaining grace under pressure publicly, or stealing away to enjoy an ice cream cone with her husband while the kids are away. You can't help but become endeared by both her and supportive Manu. (Note to American filmmakers: Sympathetic characters are not passé.)
As we meet one coworker after another, we encounter people of all backgrounds who can be jerky or callous or even violent, but most are polite, well-meaning and just doing their best by their own families. Each has his or her own situation, code of ethics and level of empathy for a co-worker in a desperate circumstance. Sandra departs all of them with a polite thank you and a smile, never insisting or overstaying her welcome.
Even if the vote-premise feels a bit far-fetched, the Dardennes never milk any situation beyond plausibility.They make us feel like we're right there with Sandra, a connection facilitated beautifully by Cotillard, the 2007 Best Actress Oscar winner for her turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The 39-year-old Parisienne snagged a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a blue-collar worker who's by turns tough-as-nails and emotionally frail. She could be viewed as our century's answer to Norma Rae — a worker on a mission of personal dignity. To that end, she triumphs, and so does the Dardennes' film.