I'm conflicted about the Dardenne brothers' latest film, Two Days, One Night (2014).
On the one hand, I think that in spite of the Dardennes' reputation as observational realists, they've constructed a film that is best understood as a moral fable. Oh, it's clearly the work of social realists. Its portrait of late capitalism has the kind of clear-eyed brutality that only comes from a long hard look at the world. Its structure and plot, on the other hand, seem like a trap built to produce a specific result for its characters. It's a gross manipulation, so if the intent is to make a film that indicts the current criminal economy, then it fails. You cannot arrive at "truth," even in fiction, if you rig the game. One of my correspondents calls the plot of Two Days, One Night "bullshit," and he's not exactly wrong.
On the other hand, Two Days, One Night features another astonishing performance by Marion Cotillard. You might expect that a movie star of Cotillard's magnitude would demolish the Dardennes' carefully cultivated observational aesthetic, but in Cotillard's case, she's a star of that magnitude in the first place because she's the most gifted actress of her generation. That is on full display in this film. She gives the Dardennes exactly what they want from a lead performance: natural, heartbreaking, without a hint of artifice. Would that the brothers tended their own garden as carefully.
The plot of Two Days, One Night follows Sandra, a woman suffering from a depression so bad that it has kept her from working for some period of time. Her employer has polled the rest of the shop: do they want to keep Sandra on or would they prefer to have a €1,000 bonus. They've voted for the bonus, though there's some question about whether the vote was conducted on the up and up. Sandra's friend in the shop informs her that many of her co-workers were bullied into voting for the bonus by the foreman, and with her help, she convinces the owner to schedule another vote--a secret ballot this time--and gives her the course of a weekend to convince enough of her co-workers to vote her way. Slowly, but surely, she convinces some of her co-workers to support her, but her own sense of hopelessness is undermining her efforts, as is the news that the foreman is actively campaigning against her. She can't give up--her family needs the income--but she doesn't see a way forward. She starts looking for ways out...
The set-up of this film's plot, the idea that a large majority of Sandra's co-workers would vote to eliminate her job if given a choice and an incentive, is deeply cynical. It believes the worst of people. I don't know that it's necessarily wrong--the Dardennes claim their story is based on several incidents in Begium and the United States--but it's so blatantly awful that it gets the film started on the wrong foot. At the end of the film, Sandra is offered the same conundrum. Take her job back at the expense of one of the other workers (a worker who ultimately sided with her in the second vote). When this happens, it becomes clear that this has been manufactured. The film manouevers Sandra to a state of grace at the end that blows away her depression and allows the filmmakers to elevate her above the dog eat dog world that has been tearing at her for the whole movie. The wheels of the machine are naked before the audience. Taking in the Dardennes' preference for long, static shots, unglamourous locations and people, and the omission of a score, its form is categorically designed to avoid undue audience manipulation, which makes the wheels of the plot, when they finally unreel everything, doubly jarring. The Dardennes are social realists, with a heavy emphasis on the “realist” part of that equation, so it’s out of character for them to play the audience so shamelessly. That’s usually anathema to the current realist aesthetic. And yet, here it is.
As I've said, this works better as a fable than as realism. It may work even better as a fairy tale. Sandra is a sleeping princess, her depression a curse weighing her down, her conversations with her co-workers the tasks laid before her that must be completed to lift that curse. In one of the film's less credible scenes, Sandra is released to continue her quest after having her stomach pumped of the box of Xanax she's ingested as if nothing has happened. I guarantee you that that would not happen in real life. I suppose this scene counts as the heroine journeying to the underworld, though that might be stretching the metaphor. In any event, it's bullshit. For a film in which the depredations of capitalism are so blatantly awful, for a film that drives its heroine to a suicide attempt, it has a surprisingly sunny ending, one you could interpret as "and she lived happily ever after." The way it arrives at this point tends to undercut the basic premise of the plot: That people are venal and self-interested, often thoughtlessly. It's a dog eat dog world.
In any event, the plot isn't the reason to see the film. Marion Cotillard is the reason to see the film. This is a film that is rescued by its star, an ironic turn of events for filmmakers who have always eschewed using movie stars in their films. What they have in Cotillard isn't someone who values glamour, her sideline as the face of Dior not withstanding. Cotillard is committed to portraying all of the nuances of Sandra's depression. There's a shock of recognition if you live with depression or live with someone who lives with depression. She gets the details right. Sandra is a closely observed character whose details are meticulously imagined. This is even more remarkable if you compare Cotillard's performance with her other great performance from 2014 in The Immigrant. That performance is in a completely different category, owing more to silent performances like the ones in The Passion of Joan of Arc or Pandora's Box. That performance is highly stylized. Her performance here is not stylized at all. She strikes the right notes of lassitude when the film demands it, it grants her twitchy bits of business when she’s out of her comfort zone, and the film knows when to look at her face and when to look at her body language, both of which are integral parts of the whole performances. The actress is completely subsumed into the character and the character is palpably real. She’s not a movie star in this film, and the film isn’t interested in making her into one. Not that it needs to. Marion Cotillard, it seems, can do anything.
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