Toronto: Belgium's Oscar Hopes May Rest on Film Starring France's Marion Cotillard

'Two Days, One Night,' Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Competition)

The Dardenne brothers are looking to take an unprecedented third Palme d'Or with their latest social drama. The exceedingly glamorous Marion Cotillard plays a very un-glam role in Two Days, One Night as a young woman trying to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job. Expect the Dardenne's patented combination of social critique and human tragedy -- a combination that won the Belgians Cannes' top honor for Rosetta in 1999 and L'enfant in 2005. (Sales: Wild Bunch)

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers who have been making films together since the 1970s, are, to me, the successors of Vittorio de Sica, the father of neorealist cinema, whose films were, as theirs always are, low-budget, minimalist dramas about the struggles of working-class people just to get by.

Over the past 15 years, three of the Dardennes' films — Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005) — have been submitted by Belgium as the nation's official entry for consideration in the best foreign language film Oscar category. However, despite the fact that each was widely acclaimed and the first and third won Cannes' Palme d'Or (they remain the only Belgian films ever accorded that honor), none were even nominated by the Academy.

On Sept. 19, Belgium can do its part to correct this injustice by submitting as their 2014 entry the Dardennes' latest film, Two Days, One Night, which many expected to win this year's Palme or another major prize at Cannes, where it premiered to great acclaim back in May, but which was instead shut out. Then it would be up to the Academy's foreign language committee to get its act together.

Two Days, One Night, like the Dardennes' earlier films The Promise (1996) and Rosetta, revolves around unemployment and the impact that it can have on the unemployed and those around them. And while neither that subject matter nor the film's logline — a woman who has lost her job spends a weekend trying to get it back — may sound particularly sexy, the resulting film is, like the best of de Sica's work, as edge-of-your-seat riveting as any thriller.

This is largely attributable to the extraordinary talent of the Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, only the second already-established star ever to anchor one of the Dardennes' films (after Cecile de France headlined 2011's excellent The Kid with a Bike), who gives a vanity-free performance throughout which she effortlessly accesses her emotions and triggers those of the people watching her.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother of two young kids. She has been on sick leave for some time due to severe depression when she receives a telephone call one Friday notifying her that her 16 coworkers at a factory decided, through a vote orchestrated by their foreman, to collect substantial bonuses rather than retain her position. Consequently, she is out of a job and her family risks having to go "back on the dole," which motivates her, with the support of her loving husband (played by Fabrizio Rongione, now a vet of five of the Dardennes' films), and despite her to still-shaky condition, to spring into action. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), she races against the clock trying to convince people to do the noble thing.

Two Days, One Night is being distributed in the U.S. by IFC/Sundance Selects. To its credit, the company, which is also handling Boyhood this season, has decided that, regardless of Belgium's decision about the film, it will give Cotillard the best actress push that she richly deserves — which could, conceivably, bear fruit in this unusually thin year for the category. (She was also great this year as the lead in The Weinstein Co.'s The Immigrant, but that seems to have largely faded from the discussion.)

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg