It's solely a reflection of the kind of films that Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne usually make that the obvious first response to Two Days, One Night, their newest film of suffocating poverty and human disconnection, made in a viscerally anti-beautiful style with a cast made up almost entirely of shabby-looking unknowns, is that it's their sell-out, mainstream, "Hollyood" film. Which means, in this case, almost nothing beyond "it has a clear plot, and that plot is frequently exciting", and "one of the people in the cast is famous and pretty". Namely, Marion Cotillard, I believe only the second full-on movie star the Dardennes have ever worked with (Cecile de France co-starred in The Kid with a Bike, their last project, from 2011), and the first around whom they've built an entire film.

I should undoubtedly feel bad about this, but I think as a direct function of its relatively movie-like qualities, Two Days, One Night has instantly become my favorite of their films. Admitting that makes one feel a bit unpleasantly bourgeois in one's tastes. But the po-faced realism of all their most important mid-career work has paid, I've found, awfully few dividends, owing not least to how uninteresting the films are to look at, or in the case of Le fils and L'enfant, how actively unpleasant. Two Days is still shot in the harshly-lit, mostly handheld style of their earlier work, though the simple fact of putting someone as movie-star beautiful as Cotillard in that setting already changes the nature of how the film's visuals can function quite a bit; it has a kind of sustained, narrative-driven shape to its images that I haven't clearly seen in any of the Dardennes' films since Rosetta.

The big shift, though, comes from structuring the story not as a closely-observed slice of life with only a bit of dramatic spine, but as a full-on thriller, something that requires a complete overhaul of how the film is made and how the characteristic acting style in the film works. And this shift, I think, enormously benefits the movie, which still boasts the brothers' signature skills at finding the links between economics and personal psychology, and depicting with non-judgmental clarity the worn-down places where normal people live their lives in the everyday world, but now expresses those things in a framework that's not nearly so medicinal. It is probably not their "best" film, which I imagine still has to be Rosetta if only for the game-changing impact that film made in 1999. On the other hand, Two Days is very much their most watchable film, and it gets there without having to sacrifice much or any of the severe truthfulness that has always been the brothers' primary motivation as filmmakers.

Cotillard plays Sandra, who finds herself in the midst of a situation that is, to be fair, just a little bit movie-contrived. The company at which she has till lately worked, a manufacturer of solar panels, has been feeling a financial pinch lately, and during Sandra's leave of absence to deal with an acute depressive episode, the managers determined that it would be possible to restructure the workloads so that it would be possible to lay her off. In a sneaky bid for democracy, they couched this in the form of a vote: Sandra's position could be kept, but it means no year-end bonuses. Her 16 co-workers naturally voted to take the €1,000 bonus, leaving her and her family (she is - was, that is to say - the primary breadwinner - in a terrible position, but the managers made one mistake: they let the rumor slip that they'd influenced the vote. To avoid the appearance of chicanery, the boss man has agreed to hold a new vote on Monday morning, giving Sandra just Saturday and Sunday (or, if you will, two days and one night) to visit each of her former colleagues to convince them to vote in favor of the greater good and not having a bit of extra money, though for most of them, that extra money is itself the difference between barely scraping by and having a precious bit of financial breathing room.

There's no missing the symbolism at the film's heart: the bosses make the workers fight each other instead of unifying over shared suffering and need. There's no room for villains in the Dardennes' worldview; the workers Sandra needs to negotiate with and beg all have their own reasons for fucking her over, and none of them (except kind of one guy) are doing it for the sheer joy of being a petty dick. It's because they are all desperate, just as much as she is; the film's panoramic view of how every sort of person is thrown into the same wastebasket by the crushing tide of economic suffering makes it one of the great documents of the modern international recession, both because of its generosity towards all of its working class characters, the ones who sympathise with Sandra and those who are chilly towards her alike. The terrific ensemble cast, mostly made out of the amateurs and semi-amateurs favored by the Dardennes in all their work, brings this cavalcade of human experiences to life with a richness and depth that allows even the characters with the smallest time onscreen (and that's a lot of people to get to in not much running time) to make a fully realised impression.

For all its excellence as a fable of working class life in the 2010s - and this is the film's primary focus and its best strength - Two Days, One Night doubles as an excellent study of depression. The open secret hiding right underneath the plot is that, from their perspective, the managers are making the right decision: Sandra has revealed herself to be unsteady and unreliable, and throughout her weekend ordeal, her depression flares up multiple times, including a thwarted suicide attempt. This adds a sharp edge to the film's economic theme, since it makes the personal stakes more intense even then "how will we eat?": it's clear enough without anybody saying it that Sandra doesn't just need the money, she needs the structure and sense of personal value imparted by having a job, and being deprived that will make it harder for her to continue functioning emotionally. It also gives Cotillard a great deal more to play than simply the noble-spirited, indefatigable working class hero of social realism. Sandra is hella fatigable, in fact. And the steady march from adrenaline-driven passion towards burned-out desperation that the character goes through over the weekend gives the actor room to build a character of excellent complexity and emotional range, leaving in her wake the best performance of her career.

Alongside its character study and economic analysis, the film is surprisingly enjoyable to watch: the ticking clock scenario gives it an urgency unknown in the Dardennes' deliberately anti-sensational filmography, and the depth that the writing and acting bring to Sandra gives the film a chance to play around with emotional registers that aren't just "everything is sad and suffering". As Sandra experiences highs and lows, so does the movie; we have here, among other surprises, a Dardenne film with a musical interlude set to the 1964 rock anthem "Gloria" by Them, with Sandra singing along in a car in a rare moment of enthusiasm and freedom.

Two Days, One Night isn't "fun" - let's not be daft - but it is unexpectedly exciting to go along with how enraging and how moving it is. If it's the most mainstream film its directors have made, so be it: there's nothing wrong with being mainstream when one can be this intellectually and thematically dense in doing so. This is, readily, one of the year's best films, and a career high for everybody involved in its creation.

9/10 (increased from 8/10 in October)