Sunday, January 4, 2015

Two Days, One Night (***1/2)

Deux jours, une nuit
Written and Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne


Most people discovered Marion Cotillard when she won the Best Actress Oscar for La Vie en Rose in 2008. She was a beautiful, exotic unknown who hyperventilated on the stage and won our hearts. La Vie en Rose was standard fare, she played the role of beloved French singer Edith Piaf with tragic grace, but that performance didn't prepare us for the consistently powerful work she's been producing since. Piaf was a role with theatrical hyperbole, and since she has become a master of subtlety, a perfect star for the small cinema-varité style films she's starred in. Hollywood treats her mostly as a foreign set piece, playing the European girl in the background of films like Inception and Contagion, and yet, she still manages to command the screen and steel what little screen time she has. She's become one of our very best contemporary actresses, and Two Days, One Night is her crescendo. Directed by the Dardenne Brothers, a Belgian duo with a bevy of nifty indies to their credit, Cotillard is shot in handheld intimacy, laid bare and unfiltered. It's as unglamorous a role as one can get for a French beauty like Cotillard, and yet, it doesn't feel like de-glam manipulation - Cotillard brings these people alive time and again, and I don't know if she's ever done a better job than what she does here.

The Belgian Dardenne brothers produced 2012's Rust and Bone, another stripped adult drama similar in vein, but in that film she was playing against the film's protagonist, played by Matthias Schoennaerts. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard is playing against no one, she stands firm as the film's center. She plays Sandra, a married mother of two who's just gotten over a severe bout with depression. Her and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), struggle to make ends meet, but they get by with their meager salaries. When Sandra gets a call from her co-worker Juliette (Catherine Salée), she's told that her fellow co-workers have voted to have her let go in exchange for a bonus of 1,000 euros. In a totally unfair situation, the group of workers are forced to choose between their own well-earned bonuses and the employment of one of their own, and out of sixteen, only two voted for Sandra to stay. When it's learned that the factory's foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gormet), may have influenced the decisions against Sandra, their boss M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), agrees to hold another secret ballot on Monday, to give Sandra a fairer chance. With the urging of her husband and Juliette, Sandra decides to spend the weekend visiting all fourteen of those workers who voted against her, to try and change their mind before it's too late.

Sandra is resistant to the idea - already in an emotionally fragile place, she's not too enticed by going door-to-door to ask for pity. She understands the unfair situation that they have been placed in, that to ask so many to sacrifice simply for her benefit will only make it an increasingly uncomfortable situation if she is able to keep her job. But her and Manu depend on her salary to pay a mortgage, and fear that they may have to return their family to a social housing unit if she's unable to find work. All the while, Sandra must battle her own emotional turbulence. Still on Xanax, the stress of her situation causes her to depend on her medication more than she's had to recently. Without warning, she breaks into tears, trying to her best not to let her emotions overcome her. It's the steady strength of Manu and the support from other workers that keeps her going. As she meets each worker, she has several awkward stand-offs from many who simply cannot forego their bonus, but she's met with a few who defiantly do change their vote, who feel ashamed of their previous decision to let one of their peers lose their job. With each affirmative response, Sandra gains more and more strength, but it continuously gets struck down when she's met with another who simply cannot change their vote. The film's roller coaster of feeling is shown prominently on Cotillard's face, as Sandra tries her best to react with grace no matter which response she gets.

What Cotillard does here is phenomenal, pushing the sadness of Sandra through every inch of her body. Her shoulders slump, her clothes hang off her body limply, her hair seems to need some washing. It's not depression that she's playing, but the overcoming of it. The acceptance of facing that fear of rejection, despite all of your instincts, in a fit of self-preservation. It's hard to find many non-depressive people who would have the courage to do what Sandra does in this film, and the whole time Cotillard shows the struggle of each word she speaks. It's very probably the best performance of 2014 (though most people, including me, won't see it till 2015). Cotillard simply doesn't get roles like this in her American films. James Gray's The Immigrant earlier this year came close, but that film meandered and it was too preoccupied with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. It's only in Europe (specifically, Belgium) where she's allowed to truly expand her range and show her incredible talent. Speaking in your first language doesn't help either. Cotillard has become a dark horse for that fifth Best Actress spot, but I'm pessimistic that she might lose it to (of all people) Jennifer Aniston.

This is the first Dardenne Bros film that I've ever seen. I'm told that all their films have a similar aesthetic. As far as micro-independent film movements go, it's a lot closer to the Danish 'Dogme' movement than it is to American Mumblecore. Two Days, One Night foregoes all attempts at manipulating reality. For all the time Sandra spends on the phone, the Dardennes never even let you hear what's on the other end, leaving you always with Sandra sullen responses which tell you all you need to know. The Dogme movement never really took off because those filmmakers become too dogmatic about their own style, and broke their own rules whenever it became convenient, but the movement's influence is seen in a lot of independent cinema today. With Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes show that that style (no make-up, no artificial lighting - as close to narrative documentary as one can get) can still be produced and create powerfully effective cinema. The performance from Cotillard as well as Rongione and the rest of the ensemble compliment their modest style. Several moments, including a magical scene where Sandra and Manu triumphantly sing Them's 'Gloria' along with the car radio, really bring to life the power of real human emotions.

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