What’s the cost of solidarity — of sticking up for another human being? In “Two Days, One Night,” it carries a very specific price tag: one thousand euros.
That’s how much the employees of a small solar-panel factory in eastern Belgium have been promised as a Christmas bonus. The trade-off, says management, is that they’ll have to agree to let go one of their own, a worker named Sandra (Marion Cotillard). A vote is hastily held and the employees opt for the bonus — except that Sandra has never been notified. Petitioning the owner (Baptiste Sornin), she convinces him to hold a second vote, and this time she has a weekend — the time period of the film’s title — to visit each of her co-workers, one by one, and beg them to reconsider.
So “Two Days, One Night” is a suspense film of sorts, with that countdown ticking in the back of Sandra’s head and ours. More than anything else it’s about the democracy of day-to-day struggle. This is a small, compassionate gem of a movie, one that’s rooted in details of people and place but that keeps opening up onto the universal. The directors are the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, who habitually film in their hometown of Liège, among the underclass and the marginalized, yet whose movies are entirely free of cant. They specialize in the drama of the ordinary, and they impart to their characters a dignity that often eludes them in life.
A Dardenne film can be tragic (“Rosetta,” 1999) or it can glimmer with hope, like “The Kid With the Bike” (2011). “Two Days, One Night” falls somewhere in the middle; it begins in desperation but, like its heroine, starts to glow with a resilience that no one — least of all her — believes is there.
The film opens with Sandra being woken on a Saturday morning with news of the first vote, and her distress is hard to watch. We come to understand that she has been absent from work battling depression, that she has only recently begun to find her feet again. Losing the factory job means that she, her husband, Manu (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione), and their two young children will have to move from their rental home to a housing project: a step or two back into the poverty they have been slowly raising their heads above.
Does a business owe anything to a struggling employee? Do employees owe anything to each other? “Two Days, One Night” charts the possible answers as Sandra travels around the city, from apartment complexes to soccer fields to grocery stores where colleagues toil in weekend jobs. The Dardennes want us to understand what one thousand euros means to these people: a windfall to pay off mounting bills, to educate a child, to hold it together for one more year. Some are sympathetic to Sandra’s situation but just can’t do it; others refuse outright, their guilt enflaming them with self-righteousness. Coursing underneath the film’s calm, observant surface is a fury at a system that sets people in the same leaky boat at each other’s throats.
We see cruelty, kindness, fear, courage. One woman (Catherine Salee), pushed around by her husband, finds herself empowered by Sandra’s stressed-out courage. A Russian immigrant (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) bursts into tears as soon as he sees her, shamed by his self-interest. A part-time worker from Benin (Serge Koto) seesaws between doing the right thing and putting his own neck on the block. The Dardennes convey the vast and varied individuality of people but their filmmaking style, attentive yet unfussy, inevitably leads a viewer to consider the things we have in common.
Despite one melodramatic miscalculation about two-thirds of the way in, “Two Days, One Night” unfolds in a quasi-documentary style that lulls an audience into empathy. No music on the soundtrack unless Sandra and her friends are singing to a Van Morrison oldie on the car radio, grabbing what sweetness the universe bothers to dole out. The performances are so good they’re invisible — it’s only after the movie’s over that you realize Rongione’s Manu is a saint — and so it’s even more remarkable that the Dardennes are working for the first time with a global movie star.
Ironically, Cotillard’s Sandra is the most invisible character of all when the movie opens, crawling back into bed in panic and popping anti-depressants like breath mints. The real drama of this movie is in watching Sandra find her balance and her pride once more, and at no time do you feel you’re watching a glamour girl playing at being one of the little people. The Oscar nomination is deserved: Cotillard and the Dardennes convince us of both this woman’s fragility and the strength that, through her own nerve and the support of others, comes slowly flooding back.
Only then can Sandra cast a vote of her own, in an ending that is both realistic and absolutely satisfying. The phrase “triumph of the human spirit” has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. “Two Days, One Night” freshly reminds us what it means, in ways both small and large.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.