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Now imagine this scenario. You've been out of work for several months, suffering, perhaps, from depression. You're all set to come back when you learn your boss is planning to eliminate your job. You convince him to let your co-workers vote on your fate, but there's a twist. He is offering each of them bonuses with the money he'll save by cutting your salary. You have a weekend to lobby them to give up the money and vote to bring you back. That is exactly the premise of a new film from award-winning Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC reports on "Two Days, One Night."
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: The premise may sound far-fetched, but Luc Dardenne insists it's not, especially in a country where small companies, like the one in the film, are not covered by union rules.
LUC DARDENNE: (Through translator) We know of several cases where that's been done. That's not exceptional today. Now what happens is often when a company does want to get rid of employees, and they have to give a reason because there's no clear reason, they'll talk about it in terms of restructuring.
MOVSHOVITZ: As a result, the workers are pitted against each other. And the Dardenne brothers wanted audiences to feel like what that would be like, both for the protagonist, a woman named Sandra, and for her co-workers. So Jean-Pierre Dardenne says the characters all ask a simple question.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: (Through translator) That sentence that is constantly repeated which is put yourself in my place. We wanted the audience member to put themselves in Alphonse's place, to put themselves in Mireille's place and, of course, to put themselves in Sandra's place. And to then be sort of playing with the question back and forth, well, what would I actually do if I was in his shoes or her shoes?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
MARION COTILLARD: (Foreign language spoken).
MOVSHOVITZ: Sandra is played by Academy Award-winning actress Marion Cotillard.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT")
COTILLARD: (Foreign language spoken).
MOVSHOVITZ: This is the first time Cotillard has worked with the Dardenne's, and she was struck by their commitment to the story.
COTILLARD: What they share is the love of people and the care. They really care for people. They really love the people they tell the story of.
MOVSHOVITZ: The Dardenne brothers have built their reputation, and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival twice on stories about the poor and the dispossessed.
COTILLARD: A lot of people are left aside today, and it's good that some people tell the story of those people who are left aside like the Dardenne brothers do.
MOVSHOVITZ: To get audiences to identify with those people, Luc Dardenne says they shot many scenes in real time as they would actually happen in life.
L. DARDENNE: (Through translator) You're watching something that started that can't stop. And so you're really gripped by the take. And it demands that we feel more commitment from the audience. They have a feeling, even if it's unconscious, a feeling of responsibility to follow the action. They become more connected with what's going on on the screen. It's not as if they're watching something that then something they don't know about can happen in the editing process that takes them somewhere else. And this gives them - the audience member, the spectators - a very strong link to what is happening on the screen and perhaps more of an identification.
MOVSHOVITZ: They succeed, says film critic, Bilge Eriri, of New York Magazine. What could easily be a dry treatise on the plight of the working poor plays out in "Two Days, One Night" like an old-style Hollywood thriller.
BILGE ERIRI: Sort of, like, DOA, you know? Dennis Quaid has 24 hours to live, and he has to find out who poisoned him. Or high noon, you know, there's 90 minutes and the bad guys are going to come to town. So there's a kind of ticking clock quality to it. I mean, it's right in the title - "Two Days, One Night." This woman basically has a weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It's a ruthless situation, and it speaks to the kind of marketplace that these people find themselves in. I mean, the fact that they've even been put in this position is monstrous.
MOVSHOVITZ: Eriri says the Dardenne's are masters of suspense. The film shows a series of one-on-one encounters between Sandra and her coworkers. Luc Dardenne explains how the brothers make the audience share Sandra's anxiety.
L. DARDENNE: (Through translator) Between each coworker and Sondra we tried to put an obstacle. For instance, when she goes to see Hicham in the bodega, he's working with cases of vegetables. And that's between them when they're trying to communicate. And there are colors that are used to sort of delimit borders. And it's not really symbolic, but it was our choice to do that because each time Sandra meets an obstacle. And then we try to see if the person that she's encountering is going to get through that obstacle and come towards her.
MOVSHOVITZ: Some of them don't. Jean-Pierre Dardenne says we live in selfish times, and his brother Luc says that's not just an affliction of the workplace.
L. DARDENNE: (Through translator) I think that there's enormous emphasis that's placed on competition. I mean, it exists in all aspects of life, and in schools and other venues where people are pushed to accentuate a sense of rivalry and where competitiveness and competition are overvalued. And on the other hand, things like empathy and equality and fraternity are values that are devalued, that are looked down upon.
MOVSHOVITZ: For two filmmakers who care about their subjects, those are ideas they'll continue to explore on-screen. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
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