There's no mistaking the work of Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. After founding a company in 1977 that has produced dozens of groundbreaking documentaries, the Dardenne brothers launched a second career making narrative films that illuminate the everyday lives of working-class people in their native Wallonia, a French-speaking area in southern Belgium. The Dardennes have twice won the Palme d'Or — the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival — for their narrative films, which mostly feature little-known actors and are crafted in a spare and naturalistic style that harks back to the brothers' documentary roots.
The addition of Oscar-winning French actress and international star Marion Cotillard to the Dardennes' world with Two Days, One Night marks the film as a milestone in the brothers' career. Cotillard's presence assures relatively wide distribution for the film. But her uniquely unaffected performance also proves a perfect match for the Dardennes' enduring focus on disenfranchised people faced with increasingly difficult circumstances.
Cotillard's Susan is a factory worker returning from a leave of absence for debilitating depression. While she was away, Susan's boss Monsieur Dumont (Batiste Sornin) learned he could manage without her and decided to put her fate in the hands of her 16 co-workers. They were required to vote on whether to keep her on at the factory, which each worker would have paid for by giving up an annual €1,000 bonus. (Similar stories from real life in Europe and the U.S. reportedly surfaced after the film's debut.) Susan is informed she has lost that vote in a landslide, but Dumont agrees to another vote. The film's title refers to the single weekend she has to convince her co-workers to vote in her favor on Monday morning and relinquish their bonuses.
It's disconcerting to be faced with the prospect of watching Susan subject herself to a series of awkward and difficult conversations. But the Dardennes turn this simple storyline into a wellspring of ideas and emotion by removing all sense of judgment from Susan's encounters with her friends and colleagues. Instead of presenting an epic struggle between right and wrong, the film explores what real people might do when faced with a complex moral dilemma. All the characters have their own stories and reasons for the choices they make. Susan is the first to admit there are no easy answers, just an abundance of difficult questions.
Working at a pace of three films per decade, the Dardennes are known for their lengthy rehearsal times and penchant for requiring more than 50 takes of often very long, edit-free scenes. There is a price to be paid for this particular type of perfectionism, as less-accomplished actors in smaller roles often suffer from a lack of spontaneity. But Cotillard obviously thrives under the pressure of the Dardennes' methods, sinking deeper into her character as the film moves along and earning her latest Oscar nomination. At no point in the film does she appear to be acting, which is an achievement in itself. Her exceptional work elevates Two Days, One Night from social realism to absorbing human drama.