Marion Cotillard stars as a woman who has one weekend to lobby her colleagues to sacrifice their own pay rise so that she can keep her job.

We saw and reviewed Two Days, One Night at its world premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Since then, we partnered with Madman Films as co-distributors of the film in Australia. 

4

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: There’s something reassuring about the Dardenne brothers, a dependable level of intelligence and craft. Unlike a number of their social-realist peers, they’ve retained a fundamental passion for the medium; the films, despite their unadorned verité aesthetic, are never simply vehicles for particular obsessions or points-of-view. And they’ve never succumbed to the hectoring didacticism that has made the last decade of Ken Loach movies so preachy and inert. (For which, alas, we can largely thank Paul Laverty’s point-counterpoint screenplays.)

Yet in some ways, their latest feature represents something of a departure—if only for the inclusion of Marion Cottilard in the lead. Though noted for their almost Bressonian reliance on non-professionals, the brothers have in fact cast name actors before: Cécile de France played the lead in 2011’s The Kid With a Bike, and Olivier Gourmet was typically excellent in Le fils (2002). But those were respected French-language thespians only; Cotillard is something else, an honest-to-goodness international movie star.

As such, her presence could easily have disrupted and perhaps even derailed the filmmakers’ meticulously-cultivated verisimilitude. It’s not a question of her ability—rather, it’s the baggage she brings, her association with all those other roles and projects, from La Vie en Rose though to Christopher Nolan. Could we believe, in other words, that this person inhabited le pays Dardenne? Could Low Country realism entirely efface the shadow of Bane?

Remarkably, the answer is yes. Cotillard plays Sandra, a wife and mother in Seraing, the Belgian port town where almost all the Dardennes’ films have been set. The small company for which she works, a manufacturer of solar panels, has been forced to downsize further, and its staff has been asked to vote: either retain her position, or hold onto their own annual bonuses—they cannot do both. Unsurprisingly, she is informed on Friday afternoon that she will be made redundant first thing Monday morning.

Having recently emerged from a long, debilitating bout of depression (her period of leave in some sense precipitated her dismissal), Sandra’s inclination is simply to pop a Xanax and hide beneath the sheets. She’s not a fighter, not a demonstrative personality in any way. Her husband, though, recognising the urgency of their situation (they have two small children, and no savings; they cannot survive on his wages alone), urges her to try to hold onto her job. She has the weekend—the two days of the title—to visit her 16 workmates at their homes and attempt to convince them to take a second, secret ballot, and sacrifice their executive perk for the sake of her family. In order to swing that vote in her favour, she must convince nine people—many of whom are from immigrant families, and are as financially disadvantaged as herself.

The odds, needless to say, are not in her favour. Yet while the structure recalls High Noon, of all things (with Sandra in the Gary Cooper role, trying to rally the townsfolk to her cause), it conforms closely to many of the Dardennes’ abiding concerns. Specifically, the iniquities of the workplace, and the stifled dignity of labour. Like Mikio Naruse, their films are often about money—or more specifically, the lack of it, and the increasingly desperate, often humiliating measures to which people resort in order to make and keep it.

They achieve this through a shooting style so affectless, and the cultivation of performances so naturalistic, as to seem almost invisible. There’s nothing remotely ostentatious about their technique; rather, like a writer celebrated for their ‘transparent’ prose—an Alice Munro or an Elmore Leonard—style is carefully subordinated, placed entirely at the service of the narrative. The art, here, is the concealment of artifice… which only makes it all the more remarkable that, watching one of their films, you know within moments that it is and could only be theirs. Films like 1999’s Palme-winning Rosetta (still, for me their greatest work) or L’enfant (2005)—or this one, not quite their equal, but compelling and provocative nonetheless—could have been made by no other filmmakers.

Perhaps because they know so precisely what they want. In a recent interview, Cottilard described the exacting rigour of their methods: "[In one scene] the brothers wanted me to break down at the exact moment that I put on my right shoe. But I happened to break down either ten seconds too soon or too late. They were very kind: they came to see me and said, 'It's really good, but if you could shift just a tiny bit the moment when you collapse?' We did fifty-six takes. When you've broken down forty-two times and it still isn't working, it takes a lot of imagination to re-start that machine."

Made for TV, this could easily have been a grind; instead, it proves as tense and urgent as any heist movie, notable not only for Cotillard’s finely-calibrated, utterly unselfconscious performance—unmade-up, seemingly exhausted, often mumbling, she manages to separate technique from celebrity—but for the filmmakers’ near-total lack of sentimentality. Their point-of-view is liberal and humane, but never simplistic or indulgent. They take no obvious sides, simply present the issue and allow their characters to work out their dilemmas, respecting each of them enough to grant them the validity of their own reasons for doing and believing the things they do. The result feels like an ensemble-piece in the broadest sense, one where the whole of society is implicated, and no single solution will ever suffice.

 

 

Watch 'Two Days, One Night'

Thursday 15 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Friday 16 July, 3:10am on SBS World Movies
Saturday 17 July, 12:50am on SBS World Movies

M
Belgium, 2014
Genre: Drama
Language: French
Director: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Salée, Fabrizio Rongione

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