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Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can't wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I'll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number four on my list is Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes's Two Days, One Night.
In Two Days, One Night, the latest drama from Belgian social realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, a young wife and mother (Marion Cotillard) who works at a small factory making solar panels learns that her coworkers have voted 14-2 to lay her off rather than forfeit their annual bonus of 1,000 Euros. The protagonist, Sandra, has recently returned to work after treatment for depression, and when she learns that she's been thrown overboard, she falls to pieces. But after one of her friends prevails on their supervisor to schedule another vote on Monday morning, Sandra's husband, Manu (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione) rouses her for a last-ditch campaign to save her job. Over the weekend she forthrightly tracks down her coworkers one by one and asks them to reconsider their decisions.
Rarely does one see a European art movie with a premise as strong, simple, and suspenseful as this one—the Dardennes essentially repeat the same awkward scene over and over again as Sandra lobbies her coworkers to support her, but every encounter shifts the balance one way or the other. The narrative structure also allows the writer-directors to consider the varying circumstances of Sandra's coworkers, many of whom are just scraping by themselves and whose dependent children are the first ones to answer the front door. "I didn't vote against you, I voted for my bonus," one man explains weakly, though his wife leaps to his defense, protesting that they're living so close to the edge themselves that they have to salvage floor tiles to cover their daughters' tuition. Another fellow, approached by Sandra as he's coaching a kids' soccer team, bursts into tears when confronted with what he's done, begs her forgiveness, and promises to support her. The coworkers' responses aren't always so heartwarming—one guy accuses Sandra of trying to steal his bonus and punches out a friend who's agreed to help her—but they're always real.
The Dardennes have always been preoccupied with predatory capitalism: Lorna's Silence (2008) deals with an exploited Albanian immigrant, L'Enfant (2005) with a man who sells his newborn son to a black market adoption agency, Rosetta (1999) with a trailer park teen desperate for steady work. Two Days, One Night is no different, exposing the endless uphill battle of getting workers to look out for each other rather than themselves. Yet the Dardennes are dramatists first and polemicists second, and the movie's labor politics are complicated by the fact that Sandra is so emotionally fragile, popping Xanax all weekend to steel herself against the despair and humiliation of begging for her job. The supervisor has used her illness against her, arguing with some employees that she's too sick to function, and to judge from her behavior, you wonder if he may be right. In the end, however, this extra wrinkle only deepens the movie's humanism, reminding you that there's nothing honorable about leaving the weak behind.
Two Days, One Night premiered in Chicago this past October as part of the Chicago International Film Festival; a commercial run follows at Music Box on January 16.