Dec 30, 2014

Two Days, One Night

This may be the most accessible film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and also the most contrived, but they still manage to make it an extremely taut, emotionally suspenseful experience. It helps that they have the astounding Marion Cotillard starring as Sandra, a woman who is about to be laid off from her factory job. Her fate hinges on her coworkers vote to keep her on, so she must convince each one of them to vote for her. The twist (and here is where the Dardennes get you to suspend your disbelief) is that either she stays, or they get a bonus. They also give Sandra an enormous hurdle, which is the reason for the precariousness of her situation: she is trying to recover from depression. Her struggle, then, is doubly heroic, as she must overcome both herself and her predicament.
You will be momentarily distracted by thinking that this situation would never fly in the Lawsuit States Of America, and probably even less in Europe, where employment laws make it virtually impossible to fire workers in certain countries, but the Dardennes are such skillful and elegant writers, that it doesn't matter much. What matters is the core of the argument: are you willing to ask people to sacrifice something for you? Is what you are asking fair? Sandra's coworkers need the bonus money as much as she needs to keep her job. She and her husband have kids and a mortgage, they are inching towards the middle class.
The Dardennes show us how difficult it is for most people to claw their way into financial stability. And these are not the poor. These are productive people who are not in the margins of society. The Dardennes are chroniclers of the struggling working class, and all their movies are moral fables about hard ethical choices their characters face in an indifferent, callous system. They make high concept films with incredibly tight premises and turn them into harrowing emotional and moral thrillers. They do this without violence, and without dramatic extravagance in modest but very powerful films. My favorite, L'Enfant, is the story of a dissolute young father who decides to sell his baby, because, why not? Everything else seems to be for sale. It is more horrifying than many scary movies.
Two Days, One Night is, like most of their films, a quietly subversive movie. It may be about a woman struggling to keep her job, and it may include a strong critique of capitalism (as most of their movies do), but it keeps you glued to your seat wanting to find out what will happen to Sandra. It even has a ticking bomb plot; there is a deadline to her efforts and if she fails, her world will collapse. Just like Tom Cruise trying to defuse a bomb in Mission Impossible III, but with an outcome of real consequence. The planet may not be in peril, but we want to know if Sandra will be able to sway her peers, who will surprise her with kindness, indifference, or cowardice. We are used to movies with such manipulative plots, but they are rarely at the service of profound ideas about work, society, and solidarity.
Making it all hit you in the heart like a ton of bricks is Marion Cotillard, a fierce actress who can cry oceans at will without an ounce of self-pity. American glamorous actresses (think Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie) try for everywoman roles once in a while and no matter how many notches they are taken down in the looks department, you never for a minute forget that they are glamorous beings pretending to rough it. While they may give it their all, they do not successfully conjure the illusion that they are truly someone else.
Here, La Cotillard wears the same pair of jeans and a couple of wifebeaters for the two days of the title, and makes you wonder how this shriveled woman also happens to be the face of Dior. She is haggard and walks with a slouch. Yet at her most vulnerable she does not fish for sympathy. She is just natural and real, and willing to go to the depths of despair for us, which is what all great actors do: go boldly to places in the soul no one really ever wants to visit.

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