' ' Cinema Romantico: Two Days, One Night

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Two Days, One Night

The Brothers Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc, long purveyors of altruistic narratives with implicit belief in the importance of community, have typically preferred casting non-actors as a way to augment both their patented naturalism and socialist leanings. In "Two Days, One Night", however, they take a hardy gamble, opting for an Oscar-winner and legit movie star in the form of Marion Cotillard to play the lead. It's a choice that, consciously or unconciously, informs their incredible and incredibly frank film, one in which the gradually fostered passion of this particular individual eventually eclipses the collective.

Having just emerged from the shell of a staggering depression, Cotillard's Sandra learns the manager at a solar panel factory where she works has offered her sixteen co-workers the option of either electing to keep her on or letting her go to get their hands on a monetary bonus. Unsurprisingly, they choose the bonus. Sandra pleads for a new vote, and when it is agreed to in the time of two days and one night, she is forced to politick to retain her position. The script, as you might surmise, weaves it so that she heads straight for Judgment Day with eight voting for and eight voting against. Perhaps this premise is a tad contrived, but that's not so much a flaw as a means to an end, not so much forgivable as intrinsically forgiven. And besides, the ginormous swells of emotions it subsequently unleashes are entirely true because of its refusal to aesthetically go slumming for them and because of  its even-handed approach to the material.

Set in an industrial Belgian town, there are obvious overtones to the fraught European economic situation of recent years, but "Two Days One Night" succeeds so grandly because it does not revolve around a cause so much as a person. Or, more precisely, people. The Dardennes' camera follows Sandra docu-style from person to person, encouraged by a husband (Fabrizio Rongione) who transcends The Supportive Spouse archetype because the screenplay subtly captures how he must maintain his own shit while helping to keep his wife from losing hers.

Though the scenes of Sandra crusading are brief, each character she encounters is deftly portrayed as a whole human being rather than some symbolic obstacle. They generally understand her plight, save for a couple, and make it clear they didn't vote against her but for the bonus, stuck between goodwill and survival. "Put yourself in my shoes," she says. And they do. But they also ask, whether directly or not, to put herself in their shoes. And she does. Right and wrong aren't blurred so much as they bleed into one another, indistinguishable, evoking a society where any decision made is liable to harm someone aside from the unseen suits who are guiding these faux-morality plays from on high. "I'm not mad at you," she says to those who refuse to change their vote, and you know she's not. You know.

You know because of Marion Cotillard, the finest female performance in a film this year, one in which she personifies weariness by educing tortured bags under her eyes and allowing her inherent allure to fall away in a physical mixture of perspiration that seems to strain all the luster from her omnipresent bright-colored halter tops. It's like she's perpetually just woken up from a sweat-stained nightmare. Rather than a Silkwood or Joan of Arc or someone trying to "change the world", she's simply hanging on to the ledge of existence by her fingernails, and wondering whether or not she should let go. She's more reluctant than determined, more resigned than desperate, getting through on account of a fragile resolve that consistently threatens to crumble. She doesn't want pity, truly, yet Cotillard's mannerisms and her refusal to make eye contact conjures up a beaten-down aura communicating the embarrassment from the pity she engenders nonetheless.

In one moment of extreme lament, when "Needles and Pins" by Petula Clark appears on the car radio, Sandra's husband turns the stero off. She turns it right back on. "You thought the song was too depressing for me?" she asks, and then she smiles. And Cotillard doesn't overdo it. It's not a show-me-your-teeth smile and she doesn't clap and sing along. It's not damn-the-man triumph. She just takes in the momentary hard-won evanescent bliss, and every one of these triumphs, each one a bit bigger than the last, gradually accumulate until she seizes on them and takes possession of herself. In the end, her job doesn't define her, she does, and her final moment, walking away from the camera, another grin waltzing across those sorrowful lips, is a wordless hymn of exultation.


thevoid99 said...

Correction, it wasn't "Gloria" by Them that was playing when Sandra's husband turned it off. It was a French version of the song "Needles and Pins" sung by Petula Clark.

It's a great film. Marion fucking kills it.

Nick Prigge said...

Gah! That's right! It is! Thank you! That's what I get for doing my soundtrack research on Google. Updated.

Derek Armstrong said...

One of my favorite of your reviews I've read in a while.

Was lucky enough to see this nearly two months ago when it was released in Australia, and it's still high up on this year's list. You've made me wonder if it deserves to be higher.

Nick Prigge said...

Cheers, sir. Thank you. One I really wanted to get it right. My 2nd favorite film of the year. Really spoke to me.