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two days one night poster 160Speaking of Two Days, One Night, the new film by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes that was part of the Main Slate offerings at this year’s New York Film Festival, “purity” is the word that comes to mind. The legendary brothers have produced a film in the tradition of Post World War II Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the Danish Dogme 95 movement—started, of course, in 1995–the more recent inheritors of the burning desire to push narrative film as far as possible away from the glamorization, fetishism and manipulations of Hollywood.

The Dardennes, like the tradition they grow out of, want to use the camera to discover the drama of the human condition in the undoctored bodies and authentic responses of their actors and their found locations instead of creating it in the editing room, and deploying evocative lighting and sound designs, and make-up, hair, and wardrobe. Just so there is no confusion, let me say at the outset, that I am not against cinema that exerts control over the image; at its best, it drives at the truth obliquely, like poetic metaphor, and its practitioners include many of my favorite directors: David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. But there is a special magic to the direct address of the Dardennes.

Two Days, One Night tells the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) a woman who lives and works in Seraing, a municipality in the province of Liege in Belgium. Seraing is the Belgian
equivalent of the mythical “Centerville” in heartland America. It offers none of the “olde tyme” fantasy of Bruges, or the modern flash and energy of Brussels. There isn’t a trace of chocolate anywhere, or any of the other coded images that mean Belgium to the international community.

Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) are at the bottom of the food chain, raising their family on a small street of extremely modest homes, getting up in the morning, driving the children to school, going to work, coming home for dinner, going to sleep, and repeating the process every day—except for weekends, which might be considered the time when routine goes off the track. So it’s not really a coincidence that the action of this film takes place on the weekend, the two days and one night of the title. Ironically, however, this particular weekend is not about release from the daily grind, but rather about Sandra’s desperation to keep her low level job in a family owned small business that employs about a dozen people. Her husband cannot support them and their children on his salary; her pay check is necessary to keep them going, and not comfortably, but hand-to-mouth.

The plot’s premise is this. The economics of the business Sandra works for dictate that if one of the workers is fired the rest can each have a one time bonus of 1,000 Euros. And in each case the bonus will help with necessities not luxuries. Sandra, who has recently recovered from a breakdown, and is not considered to be as productive as her fellow workers, has been chosen by vote of her colleagues to be sacrificed. But she and one of her co-workers, a woman who is sympathetic to the plight of Sandra’s family, have made the case that the floor manager exerted undue influence on the first vote, scaring her co-workers by implying that if Sandra isn’t the one to go, one of the others would be, and talking up the lure of the bonus. The boss will allow a second vote. Sandra and her husband, Manu, have one weekend to try to change enough votes to keep Sandra working.
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It’s a situation with built in suspense because there are high stakes for everyone involved and there’s a clock on the action; Sandra has only two days and one night. (Screenwriting 101) But as the Dardennes tell the story, instead of the pressure building up about Sandra’s job as the time grows shorter, the film increasingly questions the stakes and emphasizes a very different kind of reward.

Sandra’s process of fighting for her job turns out to have less to do with money and more to do with a fresh understanding of what she wants and what she fears.

I was very surprised to learn that the Dardennes have said that part of their inspiration to make Two Days, One Night came from 12 Angry Men (Dir Sidney Lumet, 1957), the American film that takes place almost entirely in a jury room as twelve good men and true deliberate about the fate of a man on trial for his life. Despite its good reputation, I have always thought Lumet’s film simplistic in emotional terms and overly pat in its solution to the problems of cultural prejudices and personal selfishness, and Sandra’s story is not, although it does involve, as does 12 Angry Men, changing a decision, one vote at a time. So, that structural resemblance must be what the Dardennes are referring to because the answers in Sandra’s case are anything but neat.

The Dardennes are famous for their interest in the lives of everyday, ordinary citizens, and in this case they were intrigued by real world stories that, in the words of Jean-Pierre Dardenne, reflect “the obsession with performance and violent competition between workers—everywhere in the workplace, in Belgium and elsewhere. “ However, the Dardennes came up with a twist, and that twist is that they decided not to make this a story of victimization at the hands of, as Luc Dardenne said, “a bunch of bastards.” On the contrary, most of her co-workers are impressively concerned about Sandra, and their decision about whether to make their own lives easier or give Sandra the inadequate income she needs is very difficult for them. The Dardennes mulled over the idea for 10 years before making What they finally arrived at moves through and beyond Sandra’s struggle to keep her job, toward the bigger picture not only of the complex tensions between our inherent fellow feelings for other people and the divisive, competitive pressures of Capitalism, but also the way capitalistic societies train people to place an inordinate emphasis on their jobs in order to believe that they are worth something. There are multiple discoveries made through the events of this important weekend, not only by Sandra, but by the people who she attempts to influence, and certainly by the audience. Hint: Sandra’s identity becomes less and less dependent on the job she is fighting for.

I will not detail the discoveries here in hopes that you will want to see this film and make your own pilgrimage, via the Dardennes, into the human heart and into insights in how Capitalism has ruptured community. However, I would like to emphasize that the various realizations the film offers are powerful because of the purity of the storytelling. (That word again.) There are no definitive AHA! moments as there are in 12 Angry Men, because the writing doesn’t nail anything down, and because the acting fostered by the Dardennes couldn’t be further from the declamatory style encouraged by Lumet.

two days one night cotillard 300To quote Cotillard, “With the Dardennes, the intent must always stay in the shadows, and this suits me. Even when my parts lend themselves to a ‘performance’ I always try to conceal my acting, so the audience can be with the character and her emotions.” This is precisely what we get from all the actors, though the burden of carrying the film does rest on Cotillard’s shoulders. In addition, there is no mood lighting to put punctuation marks on the moments when emotional events are taking place, and the actors appear like people you might meet in the supermarket, so the use of being attractive/unattractive to manipulate audience sympathies is absent. Does it give you a clue about the visual presentation of the characters when I tell you that no one is credited for hair design?

Yet, for all the film’s appearance of unmediated reality, there is enormous art being exercised. The Dardennes are famous for retakes, as many as 82 for a specific shot. Cotillard has
expressed her admiration for their meticulous working habits and says that no matter how many retakes they might demand, she is happy to do a scene for them as many times as necessary. It takes herculean effort to strip the look of artistry and make a frame look natural.

Two Days, One Night is Belgium’s official submission to the Academy for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I doubt that it has a chance, at least if the comments I heard from my colleagues at the press screening at NYFF are any indication. One otherwise bright woman acknowledged that she was emotionally affected by the film, but still said that it should have been cut. She felt that the scenes in which Sandra asked for votes from different co-workers were repetitive. Another critic, a very cultivated man, didn’t feel that the film “drew him in.” I hope it isn’t presumptuous of me to judge them and not the film by their reactions. Even the most sophisticated of us has been trained to over-value action and spectacle, and this doesn’t mean merely the obvious CGI of movies like Batman. Car chases and people hanging from buildings may not be your cup of tea, but no one escapes an expectation of big moments and the need to recalibrate when we are asked to savor the moments when nothing seems to be going on, while everything is happening in the silences and subtle subtextual changes. I know I noticed that when I was watching Two Days, One Night, I was constantly surprised (and delighted) when cliches I expected didn’t appear onscreen.

And it’s not just Americans who have been corrupted by BIG moviemaking. France’s chosen candidate for the Foreign Film Oscar is Saint Laurent, a flashy fabric spectacle, almost completely devoid of any authentic emotions, starring Gaspard Ulliel, who uncannily resembles Yves Saint Laurent, archly doing his Oscar Wilde impression. My advice? Go and see the working mother. You’ll get a lot more out of watching Cotillard, her hair in a messy ponytail, wearing shorts and a tank tee, while affectingly not Acting.

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