The Dardenne Brothers love a good story, and Two Days, One Night, their radiant new film, features one of their best. After emerging from a bout of depression, a young woman named Sandra (Marion Cotillard, seamlessly inhabiting the nearly celebrity-free universe of the Dardennes’ films) loses her job as a factory worker. Over a single weekend, husband in tow, she visits her co-workers one by one and tries to convince them to fund her re-hiring by giving up their scheduled bonuses. The responses she gets are variously belligerent, guilt-ridden, defensive, effusive, apologetic, conflicted, and cold.
A lesser pair of filmmakers might have settled for arranging the encounters on a spectrum of sympathy, from the young man who spirals into a violent rage at Sandra’s request to the one who, at the mere sight of her, breaks down crying in her arms. Instead, Two Days, One Night has the interpretive open-endedness of a parable, the ambiguity of an ethical thought experiment, and the limpid clarity of a folk ballad. It allows for the presence of addiction and sexual malaise in its characters’ lives, but treats both, in the end, as symptoms of problems without a firm answer.
At some point, it will occur to many viewers that Sandra, for the sake of her colleagues, perhaps shouldn’t be appealing her case—and it’s this realization that gives the movie its terrible moral force. “It would be a disaster for me if you got your job back,” one of her final listeners tells her. “But I hope for your sake that you do.”