No film now playing in theaters is more immediately pertinent to the life of a Georgetown student than the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night.” Presumably, no one reading this column is currently married with children in a working-class neighborhood in Belgium, but it’s almost certainly true that many of us have dealt with or are currently struggling with rejection, depression, feelings of isolation and anxieties about the future.

Enter Sandra (Marion Cotillard, freshly and deservedly nominated for an Oscar), a young wife and mother on a medical leave of absence from her job at a solar-panel factory after experiencing an unspecified episode of prolonged depression. Sandra wakes from a nap on a Friday afternoon to the gnat-like harassment of a phone call from a coworker bearing dire news. Sandra’s boss is letting her go for good after having forced her coworkers to vote to take bonuses out of the money originally allotted for Sandra’s salary. Sandra downs an antidepressant and races over to the factory just in time to catch her supervisor on his way out. A deal is made: The factory employees will vote again by secret ballot on Monday, leaving Sandra with the weekend to find and convince each to give up his bonus to allow her to come back to work.

If that premise sounds like a stretch, don’t be deceived. In the hands of any other directors, this story may have felt overly staged; instead, the script and camera are in the hands of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a Belgian filmmaking duo with a knack for realism and humanist drama that has netted them some of the most prestigious awards in the world of international cinema. With the Dardennes pulling all the strings and filming the proceedings as though documenting reality and with the adept Cotillard in the starring role, Sandra’s odyssey is a believable and devastating rollercoaster of successes and defeats.

The film plays out in long takes that enhance the verisimilitude of Sandra’s visits to each of her coworkers in search of votes and sympathy. While the individual circumstances of each employee differ, a few constants obstruct Sandra’s mission in each case. Living in a working-class industrial town, none of Sandra’s coworkers are in a position to give up their bonuses, even though many of them want to have her back at the factory. Though we’re meant to root for Sandra by narrative standards, it’s hard not to be just as moved and challenged by her coworkers’ own predicaments.

Yet, no one is in quite the same quandary as Sandra, who has to muster every last bit of her will to trudge onward in the face of constant rejection and mounting depression. Cotillard’s famously expressive face — she’s been likened to a silent-movie actress for the sound age — captures Sandra’s every slight shift in mood and emotional wellbeing, often in opposition to the rehearsed words of resolve she repeats at every new doorstep. As the weekend progresses, Sandra finds herself in an increasingly deeper pit, with her medication proving to be less and less effective in alleviating her mental turmoil.

What does prove effective, and what the Dardenne brothers emphasize here as in all of their films, is the quiet power of empathy. The course of Sandra’s life is literally altered by split-second interactions with those around her. Dejected after a string of unsuccessful meetings, Sandra takes a U-turn when she confronts Timur, a younger coworker who unexpectedly breaks down upon her arrival. It’s not that he’s unwilling to give up his bonus; quite to the contrary, he had been desperately hoping Sandra would talk to him so he could help her in any way he could. Sandra did not realize it in the throes of her depression, but her presence and subsequent absence at the factory made unshakeable impressions on her coworkers. Timur’s brief witness completely changes Sandra’s mood and renews her interest in finishing her inquiries.

The end of this particular journey is a long way off, with several more seismic shifts in Sandra’s disposition in store. When the day of the new vote rolls around, we’re prepared to expect the worst; knowing how the Dardennes and the reality they seek to emulate operate, it’s no spoiler to reveal that there are some complications to the happy ending we want for Sandra. Yet, even in the face of a less-than-optimal outcome, Sandra considers hers a success story. “I’m happy,” she reports to her husband by phone, and only by Hollywood standards would she be mistaken. The minute we begin to measure our successes in terms of money made or titles conferred rather than in terms of lives loved and neighbors helped is the very minute we set ourselves up for ruinous failure.

Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. The Cinema Files appears every other Friday.

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