Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
This scathing look by the Belgian Dardenne brothers at the exploitation of workers under contemporary capitalism owes much to postwar Italian neo-realism, especially Vittorio De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker in a small business, who has been on medical leave for depression. Ready to return to work, she finds that the management has learned that it's more profitable to pay overtime to the workers who have been covering for her than to pay her salary, so they've had the workers vote on whether she should have her job back. If they decide against Sandra, they'll all receive one-time bonuses. The vote goes against her, but her friends at the company protest that one of the managers unfairly told some workers that no one would be safe from layoffs if Sandra is kept on. The management agrees on a revote by secret ballot, and Sandra, still fragile and popping Xanax like breath mints, is forced to spend the weekend before the revote canvassing the other employees, trying to persuade them to save her job. Cotillard, in an extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance, portrays Sandra's journey from fragility to strength as she confronts sometimes hostile but often sympathetic co-workers to plead her case. The lure of the bonus proves strong: Two men come to blows over whether they should take the money or support Sandra, and one woman even leaves her abusive husband, who wants the money to fix up their patio. Sandra's tour of the industrial town in search of her fellow workers is reminiscent of Antonio's attempt in Bicycle Thieves to find the bicycle he needs in order to keep his job. The Dardennes mostly keep the film in a low key, so that Cotillard's work (and that of Fabrizio Rongione as Sandra's husband) shines through. The only serious bobble in the narrative comes when the despairing Sandra attempts suicide by swallowing her remaining supply of antidepressants, a moment that serves as a rather improbable turning-point for the character. And it's possible to object that the ending, in which Sandra is presented with a moral choice not unlike that her fellow workers face in their revote, is a little too formulaic. But Cotillard carries it off beautifully.