“Two Days, One Night”: High drama in the break room

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“Two Days One Night” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:35, three and a half stars out of four.

How far would you go to fight for your job? In the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ powerful and understated drama, Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker who faces a choice that seems almost medieval, but couched by her bosses in the jargon of officespeak.

Just released from the hospital after a workplace accident (and a bout of depression), Sandra (Cotillard) finds she no longer has a job. Her boss told the employees that they could either keep her on staff or keep their 1,000-Euro bonuses. Most voted for the bonuses, but it later appears the foreman was spreading rumors that if Sandra wasn’t laid off, somebody else would be.

A new vote is scheduled for Monday, giving Sandra just the weekend to visit with each of her co-workers and try to get them to vote for her. That’s really all “Two Days, One Night” is — a series of uncomfortable conversations.

But the Dardennes brothers are masters of taking the seemingly smallest possible story and finding drama, suspense and big overarching themes within it (“Kid with a Bike,” “L’enfant”). Here, every encounter Sandra has is something new, a window into somebody else’s life, as each of the employees find their own moral rationale for their vote. A grown man bursts into tears, ashamed that he voted against Sandra. A father and son come to blows. One woman won’t even come to the door.

Cotillard gives a marvelously controlled performance through it all, as the Dardennes settle the camera on the fragile Sandra’s back as she pleads her case. Every positive encounter pushes her forward, every negative one discourages her. But with the support of her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she keeps pushing ahead. Win or lose, the act of fighting for herself is a healthy one in reclaiming her sense of self. As her husband says, cradling her head in his hands, “You exist, Sandra.”

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And that’s the larger theme of “Two Days, One Night,” the appalling cruelty of modern capitalism, where employees are pitted against each other to survive, asked to bear the burden of management’s mistakes in the form of layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and Devil’s Bargains like Sandra’s. There’s nobody that Sandra meets who can’t use the bonus, can’t use it a lot. The choice essentially pits that need and economic fear against their own dignity and self-worth.

As Sandra tallies up the numbers and the Monday-morning vote approaches, the Dardennes generate real suspense as to her fate, giving such a realistic, documentary-style film a taut narrative momentum. But “Two Days, One Night” invites us to, inevitably, to ask the question of ourselves. Would we fight this hard for ourselves? And what would we say to a co-worker who was?

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