With the announcement of this year's Academy Award winners -- handed out last weekend -- comes the inevitable complaining about what won and what didn't. Around this time, it's fairly common to hear the opinion that the Oscars don't matter, and looking back at past winners, it's frequently the case that the best films of any given year don't end up taking home awards -- many more don't even receive nominations.
Yet despite the myriad problems with these kinds of awards, they're valuable for the way they can act as a spotlight for the little-seen cinematic treasures that sneak onto the ballots. Even those smaller films that go home empty-handed benefit from the attention that comes from having their titles noticed by a national audience of millions. Though they each lost their chances at Oscar glory, two exemplary nominees are making their way to Rochester.
In Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's lovingly humanistic drama, "Two Days, One Night," Best Actress nominee Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who learns that she's to be laid off following a temporary leave of absence while she battled clinical depression. Sandra is told that she may be able to keep her job if she's able to persuade the majority of the 16 other factory employees to forgo their annual bonus so that she can be rehired. A vote will be conducted by secret ballot, and she has the weekend to visit each of her peers and plead her case. It's a pride-swallowing task for anyone to attempt, let alone a person already at a low point. She reluctantly makes the rounds, knocking on the doors of her coworkers, and each new encounter raises its own moral questions.
Sandra is aware that the position she's putting her co-workers in isn't a fair one, and each react to her plight in different ways -- one bursts into tears at the sight of her; another berates her. Many feel guilty, but each has their reasons for voting the way that they did: The 1,000 euro bonus could go a long way for any one of them, many of whom are depending on that money to get by. "I didn't vote against you, I voted for my bonus," one explains apologetically.
The question mark hanging over everything is whether Sandra will be able to work, even if she manages to get the necessary votes. She's fragile and dependent on medication, not to mention afraid to return to a boss who's made it pretty clear that he'd rather she didn't stick around. Her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), offers unyielding support, though the film understands the simultaneous frustration and concern that comes with loving someone with depression.
As directors, the Dardenne brothers favor long takes, allowing (their admittedly somewhat contrived) scenario to unfold in a way that nevertheless feels naturalistic, lending a sense of intimacy to each moment. Cotillard, who's in nearly every scene, delivers a profoundly moving performance as a woman forced to assert her self-worth, to herself as much as to her coworkers. The filmmakers have a deep empathy for their characters, crafting a touching examination of compassion, human nature, and the constant need to fight for our place in the world.