In the super-suspense thriller “Two Days, One Night,” a woman spends a weekend pleading with her 16 co-workers to save her job.
I’m not being facetious about the “thriller” part of this understated and beautifully wrought Belgian-French film, which plays for two screenings only as part of the Fresno Filmworks monthly series. In their own quiet and bluntly impassioned way, directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne take a plainly spelled-out sequence of events in the life of a working-class woman and manage to imbue them with more tension than I’ve felt at many a so-called Hollywood thriller.
It’s a different kind of tension, to be sure, but the film’s premise grabs you and doesn’t let go. By the time those 16 co-workers vote on whether to give up their annual bonus in order to keep Sandra (a deeply affecting Marion Cotillard) on the job, I was as white-knuckled as the characters on screen.
Sandra works at a Belgian solar-panel company, and she’s had to take some time off because of depression issues. When she wants to return, the unfeeling boss announces that a vote will be taken among the small company’s employees: If she comes back on the payroll, they’ll have to forgo their annual bonuses.
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After the first vote sends her packing, her boss agrees to another ballot — this one in secret. She has the weekend to lobby her co-workers at their homes to go against their own economic interests and preserve her job.
Cotillard, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role in the film, thrives in the gritty, realistic, working-class milieu crafted by the Dardenne brothers (who are known for such films as “The Kid with a Bike”). Hers is not a flamboyant performance. Cotillard plays the role with a gray, spongy numbness that alternates between despair and little bursts of joy. You feel her weariness, her melancholy, in a way that makes her character’s depression seem to seep into the frame.
Yet it is those brief moments of joy — when she learns that a colleague will vote to keep her — that elevate the film to a higher level. The way in which Cotillard allows momentary happiness to flood her face is exquisite, and it’s all the more heart-breaking when it vanishes.
Fabrizio Rongione, who plays Sandra’s supportive husband, adds his own cautious optimism to the tale.
Most deeply affecting: Sandra has a brief encounter with a co-worker (Timur Magomedgadzhiev), who bursts out crying when he reveals he voted against her during the first vote. It reminds us: Beyond every layoff — and we read about countless of them as our society’s pitiless brand of capitalism chugs on — is a life. And a tear.