Here at Nouse, we like to challenge readers to embrace variety, take in new things and try “Something Different”. Modern multiplexes are flooded with superheroes, shared universes and the occasional Star War. They are all vastly entertaining and a big part of modern cinema, but there is also so much more. Film is a medium of near-endless possibilities. Images and ideas come from all directions, fizzing with the creativity, wit and intelligence of their makers. This regular section of Nouseallows our writers to review films that most of us may have missed and treat our readers to a new cinematic gem.
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée
Length: 1hr 35m
Released: August 2014
The names Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are not, most likely, a common topic of conversation to the average British cinemagoer. These two sixty-something writer-directors make films set in France and their native Belgium that could be described as almost aggressively uncommercial. They focus on stories of poverty and hardship in the lesser-seen streets of Europe’s cities. They often use the same actors, who will rarely crop up much place else, and even use non-professionals quite frequently. Their films often have miserable beginnings, with sombre middles and bleak endings. They are realists in, for the most part, a fairly pessimistic way. Yet their films, whilst not being everybody’s idea of a fun Friday-night flick, are thoroughly engaging and charged with humanity. In their naturalistic, grubby way, the Dardenne brothers work as a team to give sympathy to a variety of anti-Hollywood protagonists. Like great people, their films have heart and conscience, with many of them being seen in a clearly political light too.
Whilst being far from box-office gold, the Dardennes are almost uniformly liked by the critical establishment. They are particularly adored at the Cannes Film Festival, where they have won the prestigious Palme d’Or on two separate occasions. Two Days, One Night is a particularly affecting example of the Dardennes’ abilities; it is a microcosm of capitalism’s harsh conditions and morality crises, creating an uncomfortable and compelling film.
Plot-wise, this seventh feature from the Belgian social realists finds them in familiar territory. For just over 90 minutes, we follow thirty-something mother of two Sandra as she fights to keep her job. After a leave of absence due to depression, she returns to work to find that her co-workers have been made to vote on whether Sandra should keep her job, or they should all receive a much-needed bonus. Sandra has the time frame of the title to convince her co-workers to offer a helping hand when she most needs it. It’s simple and a perfect fit for grim, moving drama with morality at its core. In short, very Dardennian.
What is less expected of the Dardennes is their choice of leading actress. To buck their trend of stories embodied by relative unknowns, enter Marion Cotillard, Oscar-winner and star of the big-grossing Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a brave choice; her famous face and well-known name could detract from the low-key naturalism of the film. Yet it’s a gamble that pays off, with Cotillard’s name quickly being forgotten as she slips comfortably into the role of the bedraggled, desperate Sandra. When a film essentially repeats a scene several times, we would not be so involved in its lead character if the performance was not of a high calibre.
Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that this storyline and these themes are all rather familiar and the brothers are not pushing themselves quite as they could. Thankfully, this is only a minor criticism, because this is not just more of the same. Stylistically the Dardennes have strayed slightly from the ultra-realistic, no-frills approach used since their bleak debut The Promise. Admittedly, Two Days, One Night is not an action-packed thrill ride that will take the world by storm, but like with 2011’s The Kid With a Bike, here the brothers are beginning to embrace music and even that rarest of things in a Dardenne film – uplift.
There is one scene in particular that struck me as distinctly un-Dardennian. Sandra, along with her husband and a supportive colleague, is in a particularly dark place when out of nowhere comes a euphoric, yet still somewhat melancholy, sing-along to Them classic “Gloria”.. In these brief, incredibly simple moments, both the characters and the viewer forget their nigh-on-impossible situation and cling to the hope that it will all turn out okay after all. We then cut to Sandra back in the midst of her agonising task. The transition from the music to the dead silence of her task wonderfully conveys the fleeting escape music can bring and also emphasises that this problem is not going to go away, no matter how much we want it to. By tinkering with but not abandoning their typical tone, the Dardennes create one of their most successful moments.
What has been cited by many as less successful, is the film’s set-up. It was the basis for much of the criticism that Two Days, One Night faced. True, it’s slightly contrived and feels somewhat extreme, however it remains believable. If you go into the film refusing to believe that something like this would ever happen and therefore anything the film says is to be treated with suspicion, then you won’t get the most out of the Dardennes’ work here. So accept the set-up for what it is: an extreme but still plausible situation that perfectly allows for themes of greed, morality and human nature to come to the fore.
In addition to being loaded with so much emotion and thematic weight, Sandra’s agonising task of seeking out her colleagues and explaining her situation is superbly structured. There is sufficient repetition for us to feel the full misery of Sandra’s demoralising quest, yet the door-to-door aspect is broken up when needed, so that the formula doesn’t become stale. The pattern of “I would if I could, but I’m poor too and desperately need that €1000 bonus” responses is also repeated enough times for the Dardennes to let their message sink in, but with enough variation for it to feel fresh. For instance, one young man reacts aggressively towards Sandra and turns to violence when his father offers her his vote. The cruel situation these people have been placed in by a boss trying to avoid blame by letting the working-class fight it out amongst themselves has led to family disputes and, in another instance, divorce. This only pushes Sandra closer to the suicidal edge by filling her with guilt for trying to gain their sympathy.
Perhaps what the Dardennes are trying to demonstrate in Two Days, One Night is the conflict between moral success and financial success. What if all Sandra’s co-workers coldly cast her aside but then carried on the trend? More people would lose their jobs and it would be the callous, ruthless few that would be left smiling at the end of it. Is that what it takes to succeed in this world? If it is, is it worth it?