Marion Cotillard is astonishing, giving the best performance of the year in the Dardenne brothers’ exceptional drama TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT.

Astonishing.

Exceptional.

Those are the words to describe Marion Cotillard’s performance and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. When I saw the movie, I tweeted that they all “deserve every award going for this ace film” and it easily made my films of the year list for its emotional rollercoaster of a story that sees a woman experience the very worst and the very best of her fellow man on a weekend that will determine the rest of her life.

Fabrizio Rongione as Manu and Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione as Manu with Marion Cotillard

Sandra – surely one of Cotillard’s finest performances and I thought she was exquisite in Rust and Bone – is recovering. She’s been depressed and after a spell away on sick leave, relying a little too heavily on medication to get through the days at home, she learns that the company where she works is going to let her go as they realise they’ve done just fine without her while she’s been away. So instead of bringing her back into her old job, they’ll give the money that would have been spent on her salary to all her co-workers as a bonus. There’s been an off-the-books vote organised by the company’s slightly underhand foreman and that’s what going to take place. Sandra doesn’t have the energy to fight the decision and can think of nothing besides crawling back under her duvet to hide from what will happen to her.

But she’s not alone. Her husband Manu (superbly played by Fabrizio Rongione) and her best friend at the plant Juliette (a similarly brilliant Catherine Salee) are there for her – Manu in unbending support of her and Juliette as a bridge between Sandra and the company. It’s Juliette that convinces the owner of the plant, late on a Friday afternoon, to run a proper vote on Monday morning, thus giving Sandra the weekend to change her co-workers’ minds. Sounds relatively easy and after the first phone call, Sandra sees a tiny glimmer of hope and with Manu’s encouragement, decides to visit the remaining colleagues starting on Saturday morning.

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days One Night - Photograph: variety.com

Marion Cotillard is Sandra

But a phone call is nowhere near as hard as facing someone in person and asking them to give up a 1000 euro bonus that will make a difference to their life. The suburbs of the Belgian town in which she lives, reveal people struggling to get by on their meagre wages, having to resort to weekend jobs that aren’t exactly legal in some cases, just to survive. Sandra’s money is a godsend to them and as the visits go by, Sandra begins to lose courage, thinking it would be better for everyone if she just let it go.

Her journey rapidly becomes as gripping as any thriller, pulling you between hope and despair and more than that, her plight becomes something epic – an almost mythical quest to regain some ounce of self. Manu won’t let her give up and an incredibly heartfelt meeting with one her colleagues spells a breakthrough. So Sandra starts, very slowly, to grow in confidence and the remainder of the weekend becomes as much about this new-found self-esteem as what may happen come Monday morning. It’s that journey rather than the outcome that matters.

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) is the first Dardenne brothers film that I’ve seen (my bad) but from reading about their previous Cannes award-winning work – Rosetta and L’Enfant – and also their most recent picture The Kid with a Bike, their work is centred in realism, depicting stories with mostly non-actors. Casting one of France’s (and the world’s) most celebrated and admired actresses in Marion Cotillard perhaps seems either a departure or a wish to have their work seen in a more mainstream, not exclusively art-house or festival, context.

But Cotillard is such a magnificent performer that she slips into this world effortlessly. Her Sandra is exhausted to the point that her once flawless beauty has now faded into a memory and when we first see her, seems almost hollowed out, a shell of her former self. Watching her journey back to being a wife and mother and a person in her own universe is a marvel to behold and I can only recommend you also taking this journey at the earliest opportunity.