NEW YORK — For Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the stories of people living on the margins of society have always held a deep fascination. As two-time winners of the prestigious Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Belgian brothers have long been celebrated for their social realist films chronicling the lives of poor and working-class people living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling to keep their families afloat.
Their preoccupation with the plight of economically squeezed workers, and the moral dilemmas they face, can be traced directly to their upbringing in the Belgian city of Seraing in the province of Liège — a fading industrial area of abandoned steel factories and high unemployment. Not only do the brothers, both in their early 60s, still reside there today, but they also shoot all of their films in the area.
“We grew up in a town that was very alive. There were thriving coal and steel plants. It was prosperous. Then we saw it just crumble as adolescents. It became more deserted, drugs were rampant, and people started to become more isolated,” said Jean-Pierre, speaking through an interpreter during a conversation last fall at the New York Film Festival. “We saw individuals whose lives were destroyed and a whole town falling apart around us, and it gripped us and incited us to make movies about it.”
Those roots in Belgium’s fading industrial heartland provide the backdrop and inspiration for most of their films, including their latest masterwork, “Two Days, One Night,” which opens in Boston on Friday. The film’s star Marion Cotillard captured a best-actress Oscar nomination last week for her performance and has already pocketed awards from several critics groups.
The characters in the Dardennes’ films often face wrenching moral choices — whether it’s a boy torn over betraying his father in order to protect exploited workers (“The Promise”), or a grieving man faced with mentoring the teenager responsible for the death of his child (“The Son”).
In “Two Days, One Night,” Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker at a solar panel plant who must convince a majority of her co-workers to forgo their bonuses in order for her to keep her job on the assembly line. She lost the initial vote, but she and a friend argue that a foreman interfered and biased the case against her. Her boss acquiesces and sets a new vote for Monday morning.
Wearing a bright pink tank top and an expression of weary determination, Sandra embarks on a frantic journey, over the course of a weekend, to visit everyone who voted against her and try to persuade them to save her job while sacrificing their own monetary gain.
“When Sandra says, ‘Put yourself in my place,’ we need to have her co-workers be able to say, ‘Well, put yourself in my place,’” said Jean-Pierre. “That way, the audience does not just sit in judgment, but instead can say, ‘You know, what would I do if I was in Sandra’s shoes? Well, wait a second. What would I do if I was in Willy’s shoes?’ ”
In these tense, grueling on-screen encounters, some people are evasive, others sympathetic, a few unapologetically hostile. One man breaks down in tears; another threatens Sandra with violence.
“The big question that’s asked,” Jean-Pierre said, “is one of solidarity. What’s going to be stronger and win out? Will it be each person’s ethical sense of wanting to be in solidarity with someone else? Or their justification and reasons why they need the money instead of helping her? That’s the question each person is facing.”
Cotillard says that Sandra empathizes with her co-workers’ dilemma. “She doesn’t want to beg for help,” said the actress, in town for the New York Film Festival premiere. “She knows all these people need their bonuses and are in the same situation. They all have kids to send to school, families to feed and take care of, homes to pay for. They all earn little money. So she knows that she cannot judge these people.”
The story of an employee forced to plead with her co-workers instead of management to save her job was one that felt particularly resonant after the global economic crisis of 2008 and the deep recession and plodding recovery that’s followed.
“People are caught in this societal malaise where everyone is pitted against each other more and more to compete and to distinguish themselves from each other individually,” said Jean-Pierre.
Sandra’s task is made even more challenging because she suffers from depression and has missed time at work because of her illness.
‘In this movie, nobody’s good or bad. What is insane is the logic of the company she works for and the society we live in, and that logic is not human.’ - MARION COTILLARD
“Depression is super-complex and very mysterious. It’s kind of hard to know why people are depressed, and sometimes they don’t even know it themselves,” Cotillard said. “I used to be kind of judgmental about it. But at one point in my life, I came close to [sinking into] a depression. So I had a sense of what it is not to be able to get out of bed in the morning, to not be able to find the energy, to have no taste anymore for anything in life.”
Collaborating with a movie star of Cotillard’s stature is a first for the Dardennes. (They typically work with professional local actors as well as nonprofessional newcomers.)
“We’re a little bit like vampires in the sense that we take things that the [actor] is sometimes not even aware that they’re giving to us, and we use those things,” said Luc.
With Cotillard, Luc said, “She has this wonderful elusive quality, that you can see in her eyes, of being extremely alive and present, but at the same time of also being somewhere else. You can’t always grasp her. And that’s a very important combination for Sandra, because she’s a character who slips into depression, reemerges from it, and then disappears again.”
For Cotillard, the biggest challenge was the amount of filming. For single-shot scenes that can run as long as 10 minutes, the Dardennes may shoot as many as 50 to 100 takes. To create the character, Cotillard fashioned an entire back story of scenes from Sandra’s past — including her battles with depression and how it affected her family — and kept a notebook that she could turn to when she needed to call up certain emotions.
“It requires your imagination to be permanently creative,” she said. “Because we had some scenes where I had to burst into tears out of nowhere in the middle of the scene. So I needed a background to turn to so that I could pick out things that would call up an emotion — a word, a smell, an image, a story that would bring out certain emotions in me.”
At first, the Dardennes were a bit apprehensive “that the repetition of the scenes” — with a protagonist doing the same thing over and over — “could be potentially boring” and not provide the necessary narrative tension. But the film becomes a surprisingly gripping roller coaster ride. Who will be the faces behind each door? Can Sandra convince them to change their minds? And how will she respond? It’s a suspenseful film, but also a commentary on the state of contemporary capitalism.
Indeed, Cotillard points out that the real villains remain largely off screen. “In this movie, nobody’s good or bad. What is insane is the logic of the company she works for and the society we live in, and that logic is not human.”E-mail Christopher Wallenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.