The Dardenne brothers, Belgium’s filmmaking duo with a thematic itch for the proletarian struggle, don’t strive for anything foreign to their oeuvre in “Two Days, One Night,” save that it revolves around a real movie star: Marion Cotillard. With most of their previous works populated by non-actors, the high-profile Cotillard (“The Immigrant”) assignment presents both hope and despair. Stars will, as astronomy contends, illuminate – but will they overextend? Will they consequently outshine their neighbors or overact to the point of bursting? Cotillard, eyes cast downward and as aesthetically unremarkable as we’ll ever see her, doesn’t illuminate the screen. She does something better — she consumes all the light, all the optimism in the film, making each smize all the more impactful. Poignantly so, she lends back light in subtle palmfuls.

Two Days, One Night

Sundance Selects
Michigan Theater

In 2012 the director brothers won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes for their heart-wrencher, “The Kid with a Bike” – a story of a boy’s paternal abandonment and need for a parental figure. Not unlike “Two Days,” this film finds its center in an already complex character, too pitiful to be called a protagonist, but also further complicated by a periphery that plants the world as the antagonist. The difference of note here is that a kid, at first blush, is supposed to be complex and fractious – but a mother of two? There’s something quite unnerving about an adult behaving like a child, whether in gait or in tears or in a lack of confidence. The Dardenne brothers, with Cotillard at the forefront, have done just that — confidently portraying the unconfidence we all dread.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a married mother trying to make ends meet at her solar panel factory. This goes on until her coworkers vote for a 1,000 euro ($1,200) bonus, and consequently have to let her go. Sandra doesn’t handle it well, as the film opens with her asleep in the middle of the day, only awoken by that phone call. The first impression captures her sobbing without restraint, and then, as per tradition, popping six tabs of Xanax. The antidepressants dry her ducts, but only until they don’t anymore, prompting another dose. Her friend, not pinched for cash or cowardly like Sandra, drags her to the factory to plead her boss for a revote, suggesting the initial ballot was “influenced” by an unjust power. The boss, unhappy about it, agrees, giving her, two days and one night to flip a landslide 16-2 rout against her into an in-favor majority.

An aloof Sandra awkwardly asks each of her coworkers for occupational — not vocational — CPR. Most of them either don’t know her well or have money issues of their own. What makes each of these home trips so naked, though, is how, under it all, all parties involved don’t just want the job, they need it – giving way to the Dardennean ecosystem, where people work to live. As each episode unveils, these people, whether with Sandra or not, don’t seem to be living all that much anyway. It’s not just a money problem; it’s a familial problem. It’s a whatever-stems-from-money problem, which is everything in these Belgian neighborhoods.

Some of Sandra’s trips go well, and some don’t. Some are bellicose, some emotive and some even fall flaccid. What’s more is Sandra’s peripatetic-ness, the literal trips and her emotional careening. We are never sure if her fickle smile will fleet for good or make a hoped-for return. There’s a minute in the car when her loving husband (Fabrizio Rongione, “Lorna’s Silence”) drives with her in the passenger side, and the lens, seated in the back, pans back and forth between the two. Sandra breaks a long-overdue suppressed smile, her eyes meeting his as a French pop song plays loud, transporting Sandra’s potential for grace and joy without any guaranteed permanence.

As much as all of its ingredients mix this film into oversweet, it’s not. Cotillard doesn’t look like Cotillard, nor does she possess her usual onscreen aplomb. I’m confident that’s precisely what the Dardennes wanted.

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