NEW YORK (AP) — The great reservoir of the Dardenne brothers' nine feature films has been their Belgium hometown, to which they've returned again and again to plumb the daily struggles of the poor and the working class, and writ them large on the big screen.
Usually casting a mix of local professional and nonprofessional actors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Seraing is without cinematic parallel. It's a town not unique, but globally typical as a once-prosperous, now depressed post-industrial city; a place as good as any to tell the trials of regular people: a trailer-park teenager, an impregnated young woman on welfare, an abandoned boy.
"It's as if you had a friend who you used to see in the prime of life and resplendently healthy and you meet him 15 years later and he looks completely disheveled," Luc Dardennes said of Seraing in an interview with his brother through a translator. "You say to yourself: I want to tell the story of what happened."
Their latest, "Two Days, One Night," Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a dejected woman who's been fired from her job at a small solar panel plant. Her colleagues, given the choice of a $1,000 bonus or keeping her on, elect for the bonus. But a friend of Sandra's convinces the boss to hold a second vote, giving Sandra a weekend to visit her 16 colleagues at their homes.
Driving with her husband from one to the next, Sandra's journey becomes a powerful odyssey of fellowship and self-interest, and of her heroic summoning of courage.
"This is in praise of fragility, in praise of a fragile woman," says Luc. "It's a woman who needs the help of others in order to move forward."
"Two Days, One Night," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, is the Dardennes' first films starring a big name. They met Cotillard when they were co-producers of the 2012 film "Rust and Bone." Luc calls their initial encounter in an elevator "cinematic love at first sight." Cotillard speaks in similar terms.
"I felt that I could give them everything, anything," she says. "Right away there was a kind of osmosis that's kind of hard to explain. It's like when you fall in love with someone right away you can't explain why."
As a devoted fan of the Dardennes' movies (among them "Rosetta," ''The Son," ''The Kid With a Bike"), Cotillard found herself experiencing the hard work that goes into crafting their rough-hewn realism. There was a month of rehearsals and often dozens of takes during production. Still beaming, she calls the shoot the best experience she's ever had making a movie.
"A lot of directors don't talk about the audience, it's almost a bad word on set. (The Dardennes) talk about the audience all the time, and they really want to take the audience on a journey," says Cotillard. "It's like a chef when he cooks, he wants you to love his cooking and make you happy."
It's an approach that has made the Dardennes — Luc is 60, Jean-Pierre is 63 — among the most lauded filmmakers in the world. They've twice won Cannes' prestigious Palme d'Or, though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has given them a curiously cold reception. "Two Days, One Night" was Belgium's Oscar submission this year, but it surprisingly failed to make the shortlist for best foreign-language film.
But "Two Days, One Night," while more conceptually plotted than most of their films, confirms the Dardennes as the era's pre-eminent chroniclers of working-class lives seen up-close, on the ground, often trailed by handheld cameras. For a time marked by growing inequality, no filmmakers are more vitally current than a pair of white-haired brothers from Belgium.
"We have the feeling of making films — maybe we're thinking too highly of ourselves — where we're looking at the world straight on, looking at the world in the eye," says Luc. "We try to make it that the people that you see on the screen aren't just the product of our manipulations. We want the film to breath and for the air to circulate."
Perhaps they might have uncovered these movies anywhere, but the Dardennes found them in their own backyard.
"Seeing these people who were alone in the streets where we grew up, made us want to tell their stories," says Jean-Pierre. "What does link all these films together is that they speak toward being or not being in solidarity. In that sense, yes, we're repeatedly telling the same story."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP