In the opening moments of Two Days, One Night, a working-class Belgian woman named Sandra (Marion Cotillard) wakes from a midday nap, takes a phone call, removes a tart from the oven, pops a pill, and begs herself not to cry. With a sense of having arrived in the middle of the story, we follow Sandra, and these bread crumbs of information, as a detective might, making connections along the way. The phone call, from a co-worker, involved bad news about her job; Sandra has been on leave, and still appears quite fragile. The co-worker urges Sandra to present herself to their boss, but Sandra's is a wavering presence, even within her own skin. "I don't exist," she tells her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). "I'm nothing, nothing at all."
The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, are known to explore characters trapped by social and economic circumstance, challenging with curiosity and compassion the assumptions attached to the lives of less fortunate others. With Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes turn their humanist lens onto someone in conflict with her own humanity: Sandra has been depressed, seriously and clinically. On the verge of recovery, she is still at the mercy of the world, raw to its injustices, defenseless against its whims. When that early phone call informs her that a dozen or so colleagues at a manufacturing plant, eager to collect a 1,000-euro bonus, have all voted to make her "redundant," Sandra is undone.
Having secured a second vote on the matter, and with the persuasion of her husband and that sympathetic co-worker, Sandra agrees to spend the weekend campaigning for her job. As she visits her fellow union members, one by one, the struggle to make her presence felt — and plainly ask her peers for help — suggests there is more to the gambit than Sandra's job. If the source of her illness remains effectively off-screen, the film traces its symptoms, connecting their exacerbation to social alienation and their resolution to a sense of unity and moral purpose.
In that sense, the film's dialectic feels unfinished, a little too simple. It does leave room, however, for a feminist reading: Sandra and Manu, a kitchen worker, may be living on the edge of poverty, but her marriage, in addition to producing two sweet-natured children, appears exceptionally loving and supportive. A stable home life, for Sandra, is not enough; something more than pride and practicality is behind her desperation to remain employed, with a sense of professional identity. "I want to be with you," she tells one reluctant co-worker. "Not alone on the dole."
What anchors Two Days, One Night, and eases its gaps, is Cotillard's extraordinary performance. A star presence if ever there was one, the actress must play against not just her looks (which scruffy hair and a lack of makeup can't offset) but her essential vitality. Sandra wears a uniform of racerback tank tops, jeans, and ankle boots; the way she lets her pretty, colored bra straps show signals, to me anyway, a woman with a shoulder or two still in the game. She is undoubtedly labile, but in the series of confrontations that make up the film, a basic stubbornness underlies her mix of pride and vulnerability. Sandra's plea doesn't change, or grow more canny with each visit; the ask is always simple, level, and brief.
The responses run a gamut: regretful but firm; avoidant; unsure; lightly deflective; deeply ashamed; even derisive. Sandra tracks each co-worker to his or her home, where we get a glimpse of their circumstances, and their character. For some, the bonus means electricity for a year; for others it will pay down a less necessary new patio. Almost all feel entitled to the money, otherwise marked for Sandra's salary. The dilemma lays the coworkers' relations painfully bare, and more than once blame for the predicament is placed with the bosses, a deferral that works both ways. "I didn't decide that," one worker says of the bonus coming at the cost of Sandra's reinstatement. "Neither did I," Sandra replies.
Two Days, One Night culminates in not one decision but two: The first decides Sandra's fate for her; the second is an act of self-determination. The final shot, of Sandra walking, her back and those colored bra straps to the camera, recalls much of what has come before. In moments of defeat, we see Sandra taking to her bed (in one of the film's ill-considered turns, she does so with a bellyful of pills), as depressed people tend to do. More often, we watch a woman in motion, traveling at length, on buses, in cars, and on foot. With its troubled mind as cargo, we follow a body acting, as if from memory, on its purpose.