February 27 — March 05
Two Days, One Night
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:00|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) have gained international acclaim with films that combine gritty, unaffected realism with deep-rooted humanism that renders their often poor or lower-class characters, people who might seem drab or “ordinary” at first glance, with such dignity and respect that their problems become universal and immediate. They typically prefer to work with non-professional actors to elicit an unaffected, more genuine emotion, often underplaying in situations that trained actors might dramatize or make pleas for audience sympathy. It’s almost impossible not to think of Dardenne characters as identical to the characters they play, so natural are the performances. So there was some concern among fans that the Dardennes’ latest film featured a “ringer”,Marion Cotillard in the lead role, not only an extremely recognizable face, but one of the world’s most accomplished actresses in a variety of different roles. Could Ms. Cotillard disappear into this role as well as an unknown? Would her acting style fit the Dardennes’ hand-held, unglamorous aesthetic? The answer is an emphatic yes. Marion Cotillard was a surprise Oscar nominee for Best Actress, but a welcome surprise, this is one of her most affecting, sympathetic performances, yet completely shorn of the well-worn tics that veteran actors often use to ingratiate themselves with the audience. Cotillard understands that her character’s situation is sufficiently harrowing to gain our interest; there’s no need for tear-soaked handkerchiefs, and no time for such displays, because time is the essence of our heroine’s dilemma. The title clues us in right away: Sandra (Cotillard) is a factory worker with a husband and two children to help support, and after a lengthy leave of absence, she now has a weekend (two days and one night) to convince nine out of sixteen fellow workers to turn down a pay raise they’ve just been offered because management has decided they can cut Sandra’s position. It’s an ethical situation that seems perversely sadistic, the bosses have placed one worker’s fate in the hands of her co-workers, who have financial needs of their own, and the reward is simply being allowed to keep the soul-crushing job that helped cause Sandra’s breakdown earlier. It sounds like on-the-nose Marxism, an illustration of how the big bosses pit workers against one another in order to maintain “order” and keep the lower classes from directing their anger toward those at the top. Yet with today’s widespread fears of unemployment and undercurrent of resentment toward the privileged one-percent, this story is eerily plausible. Cotillard’s magnificent performance helps transform what could’ve been a suspense polemic, critic Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian suggested it was a 12 Angry Men for the 21st century (a compliment), into a raw, compelling story that maintains our interest. As Sandra starts canvassing her co-workers, trying to persuade them to forgo the much-needed bonus in order to save her job, and most of them don’t particularly like her enough as a person to feel natural empathy, we start to become just as interested in their stories as we are in Sandra’s situation. They’re not heartless monsters but victims of the same dehumanizing economic forces that have brought Sandra to this point of desperation; we gradually see their perspectives, too. The film has a subversively optimistic streak buried within this scenario: Sandra may or may not convince a majority of her co-workers to save her job, but from the experience of confronting them over a tense weekend, for the first time ever they’ve communicated with each other as human beings, exposing their fears and frailties in a way that was never possible inside the factory. Ultimately, though, the film is fascinating because we want to know how that vote will turn out: will altruism and compassion win out over pragmatic, self-absorbed need? The resolution will surprise viewers, but what Sandra discovers about her co-workers, and herself, on the way to that decisive vote is the stuff of gripping cinema. It’s the type of real-life drama in which the Dardenne brothers excel. Somehow, without any apparent directorial pyrotechniques, they take “ordinary” people’s choices and show us psychological insights that we can’t see with such clarity when we see (or are faced with) the sames kinds of decisions. When other filmmakers use hand-held camerawork, it often suggests nervousness, impatience, boredom, or a misplaced desire to add “kinetic” energy to the mise-en-scène, the filmmakers don’t trust what’s on the screen to command our attention. With the Dardennes, the hand-held camera seems decisive, intentional, and always properly placed, it penetrates the thoughts and feelings of the characters in a way that other directors can’t match. Yet at the same time, it adds to the humanistic aesthetic: the camera movement subtly mirrors the indecision and inner turmoil of the subjects, putting us firmly on their side even when their behavior is objectionable. The Dardennes’ style looks offhand and casual: the action feels unrehearsed, the camera capturing events as they happen in one take. That’s by design: the Dardennes put a great deal of effort into making their movies seem like they’re unfolding right in front of us, happening at that very moment. In reality, a lot of pre-planning goes into them: scenes are practiced extensively and filmed in dozens of takes; there is some improvisation but it’s generally discovered over the course of lengthy rehearsal, while the actors are discovering who their characters are and how they think. Watching a Dardennes film, a viewer might think that “anyone can do that”, but it takes hard work to make the style seem effortless. That’s where Cotillard’s professionalism served her well, driven by her complete faith in the project (she accepted the role before even reading a script) and her willingness to do up to 80+ takes for a lengthy scene. That commitment is appropriate to the heroine’s level of desperation, and gives added intensity to Cotillard’s towering performance. Sharply political but not strident, Two Days, One Night is a terrific example of the Dardenne brothers’ genuine concern for the underdog, the disadvantaged, and the powerless. It’s one of the most electrifying dramas of the year, a story that shows human nature under extreme duress, and both the weaknesses and strengths that such ethical choices give people an opportunity to display.
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