“When they say it’s not about money? It’s about money.”

— H.L. Mencken

As if we didn’t already know, we soon learn from “Two Days, One Night” that wealth and power live in another world somewhere down the street. The social struggle of the middle and working class, no matter what country, is right next door and all about us.

And so it is with factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her restaurant helper husband (Fabrizio Rongione) who, like most of their contemporaries in their French town, spend their lives treading the boiling waters of life.

When we first meet them in their two bedroom town house, life looks pretty good for them. It’s an illusion of course. They came, by a series of lucky strokes, from public housing to this nicer home, and it will only take one bad break, one misstep, to take them back to living “on the dole.”

The bad break rears its ugly head as the story opens. Sandra has long had a fragile relationship with daily life. Apparently, at some point in the near past, she had a breakdown and was hospitalized for depression, forcing her to take precious time off from her job in a solar panel factory. Now, she pops Xanax daily just to keep her emotional boat from sinking. But that boat has just sprung a leak. A friend has called to tell her that the management of the factory is reshuffling the workers’ deck, and her position is in the elimination slot.

A meeting was held and a vote called. The workers have been promised a 1,000 euro bonus, but only if one worker is laid off. That would be Sandra. Here’s where the brothers Dardenne bring in the cold carnival of working class life.

The deal: 1,000 euros in each pocket, or keep Sandra on and lose the bonus. The vote, amongst people in tougher situations than Sandra, is predictable. Most are her every-day work friends, but when it comes to losing that much money, how much is a friend worth?

Sandra and Manu know the loss of her job will be a financial earthquake for them, forcing them and their two children to move back into the semi-squalor of public housing and further impeding their children’s future.

Here’s where “Two Days, One Night” morphs from a social dilemma to a thriller of sorts. Sandra has convinced the manager to hold another vote on Monday. If she can, at the meeting, convince a minimum of seven co-workers to change their minds, and give up the bonus, her job will be saved.

We, as viewers, are suddenly taken from being watchers and find ourselves emotionally involved, as if in some film noir thriller. We watch Sandra, who has two days and one night, set about by bus, on foot and part-time with Manu in his car, go about the city and country side, knocking on doors and windows, making desperate phone calls, confronting one in a cafe, another in a bowling alley, yet another on a soccer pitch. The part-time soccer coach is the most heart rending of the confrontations. He remembers how kind she was to him as a new guy, and promises to vote for her.

One by one, as she walks through hot summer streets, Sandra brings each seven of the needed votes around. She moves on without tears, without begging, keeping her head up, fighting the shadow of another breakdown, forcing a smile, even singing a rock song with her husband as he drops her around. Not since Sally Field in “Norma Rae” stood atop a machine with a sign UNION, have we seen such a brilliant portrayal of one woman’s courage.

“Two Days, One Night” is raw, exciting realism and, I’m sure the brothers Dardenne didn’t intend to focus a much needed light on America’s upcoming presidential race that includes the willful destruction of Wisconsin’s unions by Republican candidate Scott Walker. But they did.

Marion Cotillard will be in the first two aisles this Oscar night and by this reading, we will know if she’s won her statue. She is so human, so touching and real as to be almost unrecognizable. The cast, down to the smallest role is impeccable. The competition for gold is a tight one, but despite the outcome, Marion, like her Sandra, can hold her head high.

The brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have sent us a powerful film and a message. Pay attention to both.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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