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Arts & Life

'Two Days, One Night' Is A Frenetic Look At The Small Trials Of Labor

Courtesy of IFC Films

In Two Days, One Night, a woman fights to keep her job in a small factory. It's worse than just keeping her job. Sandra, played by the wonderful Marion Cotillard, has to persuade her co-workers to make a sacrifice.

The boss of the small solar panel factory has given the workers a choice – they can either get a bonus OR Sandra can come back to work. It's not easy for any of them – they too live on the edge financially and a bonus makes a difference. So the movie sets justifiable self-interest against generosity.

  Two Days, One Night opens on Sandra asleep in the daytime. The alarm rings and it takes a while for her to awaken, and these are a few moments when the film is not in constant, sometimes frantic action. One way to look at the movie is that it's about Sandra waking up, to all sorts of things. She's been on sick leave because she's been depressed, and now she has to click into action and overcome a host of obstacles. Besides being a good labor story, Two Days, One Night offers a picture of depression far beyond what movies have done before.

Sandra's job, over the coming weekend is to visit every one of her 16 co-workers to try to persuade them to help her out, which takes astonishing will and determination from her, as well as support from her husband, who gets her up, drives her around and cheers her on. He knows that there's more at stake than a job.

The Dardenne brothers film with remarkable urgency. They've explained how each encounter contains some kind of obstacle between Sandra and the person she's approaching – maybe a box in a store or a fence or a door – something physical the characters have to work their way around. The Dardenne's also cut the film so that with each shot, characters are already in motion. You don't see much of people standing still, and you usually don't see either the beginning or the end of actions. The film's a torrent of activity and urgency.

There's also that time limit on Sandra – the vote comes on Monday morning, so the pressure to convince the others is on for the entire film, mixed with the tangle of each person's own problems and the persistent worry over Sandra's depression.

In the world of the movies, there aren't a lot of thrillers about employment problems, but this is what Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne do. They put characters in impossible binds to see how they will find their way. The anxiety that comes with Two Days One Night is just like what you get from movies about political intrigue. In emotional terms, you buy into it, which makes Sandra's life important. Her story matters just as much to viewers as stories about spies or ace detectives. It's just that few filmmakers take on the significance of factory workers.

The Dardenne brothers film the story in bright sunlight, and when the action takes place indoors, it's still in well-lighted spaces. No one gets to lurk or hide in the shadows. Literally, the movie is an exposé. It puts light on how labor laws allow small factories to manipulate their workers; it shows husbands and wives arguing about their finances, and it shows the brutality of international economics. Nearly all of Sandra's co-workers have to have other work to stay afloat financially. The promised one-time bonus is not a ton of money – maybe $1500 for most of the workers – but it's a big deal for people one small step away from losing their modest homes.

In bright sunlight Two Days One Night shows the look of Sandra's heroic fight within herself.

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