Opening Friday

Maybe it’s because I know all too well how painful, humiliating and soul-crushing it is to be short on work and have to ask people for help to keep from ending up broke and homeless, but I adored TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, one of the best movies from last year, which is finally getting a local release this week.

This latest from neorealist Belgian filmmakers (and brothers) Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a married mother of two who does everything she can to keep her job at a Belgian solar-panel factory. Unfortunately, her superiors could care less. They let her fellow employees vote on whether to keep her on staff or kick her to the curb so they can get 1,000-Euro bonuses. (Guess what they choose.)

Sandra, who’s been crying a lot and excessively taking Xanax after a mental breakdown-inciting accident that’s never fully explained, is despondent after hearing the news. However, thanks to a coworker and friend, the higher-ups give Sandra another shot at keeping her job, promising to hold a secret ballot when everybody comes back on Monday morning.

So Sandra spends the titular amount of time going all over the city, approaching her coworkers and trying to get them on her side. If that doesn’t sound very interesting, then you don’t know about the Dardennes’ knack for keeping it fascinatingly real.

The brothers, who always find riveting drama bubbling underneath the mundane, make sure Sandra’s journey is eye-opening and rich with subtle detail. As previous Dardenne movies have had protagonists grappling with doing the right thing, even when they seem ill-equipped to pull it off, it’s the supporting cast who is saddled with that struggle hereand that’s what really pulls you in. While Sandra’s coworkers either support her or apologetically turn her down (one breaks down in tears in front of her, expressing shame for initially voting for the bonus), they also show that they’re just people trying to work so they can support themselves or their families. By getting in touch with these people, Sandra discovers that she’s not the only one desperate to stay employed.

Sandra is the latest tormented protagonist the Dardennes follow around for the entire course of a movie, and Cotillard (who got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this role) gives a gripping, honest, A-game performance. As she proved with her devastating turn in the underrated The Immigrant, Cotillard is becoming the go-to actress for directors seeking a fragile lead who must depend on the mercy of others, doing her damnedest to keep it together when she would much rather collapse on the floor and churn out tears.

With its story of working-class stiffs trying to make ends meet, Two Days, One Night should surprise American audiences who’ve been through job drama with how relatable it is. The movie may come from another part of the world, but people praying they don’t get laid off? That’s universal.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Dirty work”