Monday, 8 September 2014

Two Days, One Night / Deux Jours, Une Nuit (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Money is a vulgar subject; it's something that affects everyone in someway, permeating our lives, happiness, and outlooks no matter how much we try to renounce its influence. The Belgian Dardenne brothers have never been the soapbox for the downtrodden or the poverty stricken but tellers of simple human struggles. They take scenarios that to any viewer could consume and devastate but in this day and age would seldom be acknowledged as worthy for a cinematic venture. Like the post-war Italian neo-realists to the radical Iranian filmmakers of the 80s and on such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Dardenne brothers tell of simple human struggles with Two Days, One Night tracking a woman's mission to convince her colleagues to choose her continued employment over their annual bonuses.

Told in a series of long held shots, Two Days, One Night unfolds largely as the same scene played over and over as Sandra (Marion Cotillard) visits each colleague over a weekend to fight for her stay. So what makes this utterly compelling instead of risking monotony is not only the fantastic performances on display but the dramatic pendulum of Sandra's mental health. Though specifics are not muttered it's made clear that Sandra has entered this dilemma on the verge of returning to work after a spout of depression, making her plight all the more difficult to prove her worth. The defeatist weight of depression hanging over this recovering individual and the support from her husband (Dardenne resident Fabrizio Rongione) means each meeting and plea is either one step closer to the light or to breaking point as this family is put under increasing strain. 

So why should audiences care about the employment of a middle-class mother as she honourably asks others to give up their hard earned bonuses, of which they will use for house extensions and tuition fees? Well as always with the Dardennes this is interesting on a purely moralistic, anthropological level despite the political undertones of the work. Nearly everyone in the film is given a choice; whether it be to help a neighbour or to help themselves, or to fall in line with the group or remain an individual. Everyone approached by Sandra has to question whether their actions will mean anything in the greater picture and all this with the propagandist discourse used by an authority figure in the work place who's hell bent on slandering Sandra's efforts. 

Marion Cotillard is beyond impressive as she always seems to be in her native tongue (I'm still yet to see her used well in Hollywood save for The Immigrant) and reminds again how she is one of the most talented actresses working today. For Sandra she is stripped down, weak, almost anaemic, ready to be destroyed either by her colleague's cold cynicism or a strong wind. The Dardennes have never worked with an actor of Cotillard's stature and there's certainly something refreshing for both sides on this pairing, yet despite a full array of strong performances throughout I couldn't shake the feeling that this international actress was leaving the rest in the dust.

Have the Dardennes ever made a bad film? No, and they may not be capable of either, but for all of Two Days, One Night's wonderful poetic realism, for all its layers under a modest setup, and the raw power of Cotillard, this wasn't the top tier offering from two of the greatest living filmmakers I was led to believe it would be. These Belgian brothers are a miracle of modern cinema and their canon of humanist dramas is one of the finest bodies of work imaginable in which their latest sits comfortably. It just didn't stir like Rosetta, haunt like La Promesse, or grab at a gut level like The Kid with a Bike did. 

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