Imagine if you had to spend a weekend tracking down co-workers to change their minds about having selected you to be laid off from your job.
That's the predicament faced by Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the troubled main character in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's quietly powerful and distressingly relevant Two Days, One Night.
How did Sandra's plight arise? She works at a small factory that produces solar panels. Faced with increased foreign competition, her boss (Batiste Sornin) forces the company's employees to make a cruel choice. They either can collect their annual bonuses -- about 1,000 euros each -- or maintain the current size of the work force. If they opt for the bonuses, one of them will have to go.
The workers choose the bonuses, and select Sandra as the person to be sacrificed. Sandra isn't helped by the fact that she suffers from depression. Some of her colleagues have come to regard her as unreliable.
During the course of a weekend, Sandra visits her co-workers hoping that they'll change their minds and allow her to continue in the job on which she and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) rely.
Like many other people in a battered economy, Sandra and Manu are holding on by a thread.
The Dardenne brothers are a rarity, filmmakers who focus on people who in one way or another have been marginalized. In movies such as Rosetta, The Son, and The Kid With the Bike, they've established a naturalistic style that favors realism over cinematic razzle-dazzle.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the Dardennes are two of the most important filmmakers working today and that their clear-eyed films deserve to be called "essential."
The Dardennes elevate Two Days, One Night by turning it into a story that not only deals with economic stress, but with complex ethical issues.
Sandra hopes her colleagues will forego self-interest and help her stay employed. She knows, of course, that the people she's approaching are under as much financial strain as she is.
Sandra's encounters constitute the heart of the movie. Watching a guilt-ridden co-worker struggle with his conscience embodies the movie's attempt to expose the tormenting tug of incompatible forces, in this case regret and necessity.
The Dardenne brothers don't give us phony villains; they are less interested in finger pointing than in looking at a system that pits workers against one another.
Cotillard, who received a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance in Two Days, One Night, embodies Sandra's compassion, fear and uneasy psychology. Her performance fits snugly with the rest of a lesser-known cast.
Two Days, One Night sustains the Dardennes importance as filmmakers who care deeply about ordinary people and who feel no need to amplify life's heartbreak. In Two Days, One Night, we watch characters trying to salvage their humanity in a climate of panic and desperation.
It's difficult not to be moved.