Cannes Check 2014: Marion Cotillard in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s ‘Two Days, One Night’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's “Two Days, One Night.” 

The directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgian, 63 and 60 years old). World cinema's favorite fraternal directing duo, and the pre-eminent figures in Belgium's spotty filmmaking history, the pair grew up in the French-speaking Wallonia district, studied drama and philosophy respectively, and co-founded the Derives documentary production company in 1977 — it stands to this day. After a decade of non-fiction work, they made their first narrative feature, “Falsch,” in 1987; their third feature, 1996's “La Promesse,” proved the breakthrough, premiering at Toronto, winning a couple of major US critics' awards, and initiating ongoing collaborations with actors Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier. They've since made six features, all in their signature mode of social realism and all premiering at Cannes. 

The talent: The Dardennes' commitment to ground-level grit has precluded star casting for most of their career, but they're coming round: 2011's “The Kid With a Bike” boasted a mid-level name in Cecile de France, but “Two Days, One Night” raises the game with Oscar-winning international icon Marion Cotillard in the lead — marking her fourth consecutive appearance on the Croisette, and her first French-language feature since “Rust and Bone.” Joining her are two actors with Dardenne credentials: the aforementioned Gourmet (who won Best Actor at Cannes for the Dardennes' “The Son”) stars in his seventh film for the brothers, and Fabrizio Rongione (who debuted in their 1999 Palme d'Or winner “Rosetta”) his fifth. Actress Catherine Salée turned up as Adele Exarchopoulos' mother in last year's Palme champ “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The Dardennes wrote their own original screenplay as usual, while their regular below-the-line team — including cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Helene Dozo — remains fixed.

The pitch: Dardenne films tend to be bigger on textured social geography and incremental personal development than elaborate narrative arcs, but “Two Days, One Night” — described by Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux as “a Belgian western” — boasts a premise of positively “High Noon”-esque tension by their standards. Marion Cotillard plays a working-class woman given one weekend to save her job: with the assistance of her husband (Rongione), she must travel across town, persuading her colleagues to give up their bonuses in order to keep her employed. This would appear to be the Dardennes' typically tough-minded response to the European economic crisis, with a plum de-glammed role for Cotillard. Sundance Selects will be distributing in the US.

The prestige: Venerated by critics and fellow filmmakers the world over, the Dardennes are Cannes royalty — two of only eight filmmakers to have won the Palme d'Or twice, for “Rosetta” (1999) and “The Child” (2005). (The others: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke, Shohei Imamura, Emir Kusturica, Alf Sjoberg and Bille August.) Not only have their last five features all played in Competition at Cannes, but not one has left the Croisette without a prize: “The Son” took Best Actor and “Lorna's Silence” Best Screenplay, while “The Kid With a Bike” came close to netting them a third Palme, sharing the runner-up Grand Prix with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

The buzz: Strong, if not particularly feverish — though the presence of Cotillard ensures the attention of a contingent not normally that interested in hard-luck stories of penniless Belgians. The fusions of her star voltage with the directors' hands-off naturalism might be the factor arousing the most curiosity, since the Dardennes are so humbly reliable — even a film like “Lorna's Silence,” which didn't set critics alight in 2007, was studious and artfully crafted — as to limit their capacity to surprise. A subtitle-free trailer is compelling, but very much what you'd expect.

The odds: No filmmaker has ever won three Palmes d'Or, and the Dardennes seem as likely as anyone to get their first — their restrained humanism is the kind of filmmaking which could unite jurors otherwise divided on the merits of flashier works. Still, however good the film is, it'd be deemed a safe choice for top honors; Jane Campion's eclectic jury may prefer to look a little further afield. Jigsaw Lounge places it squarely midfield with odds of 16-1; my instinct is that if the film is rewarded at all, it'll be for Cotillard, who could be considered unlucky after missing out on Best Actress for fine work in “Rust and Bone” and “The Immigrant.” She's the on-paper favorite at this point.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up “Mommy,” the first Competition entry from Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan.