MOVIE REVIEW: Two Days, One Night

(Image courtesy of Alejandro Riera and the Chicago International Film Festival)


50th Chicago International Film Festival selection

More often than not, most audiences require their movies to reach a certain level of glamour.  Because of the size and impact of film compared to television or other forms of art, there is a want for movies to have spectacle and grandeur exceeding that of everyday life.  Even if a film seeks to tell a plain and ordinary story without glamour, the showiness still creeps in most of the time in the way a film is presented, either in its acting, music, cinematography, or other levels of scope and scale.  After all, for a large chunk of the ticket-buying public, movies are the place for red carpets, celebrities, and beautiful people.  They are people we envy and want to be.  They take us away from the ordinary.

One such actress that exudes a Hollywood level of beautiful nowadays is French Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard.  Since her Oscar win for Best Actress in "La Vie en Rose" in 2007 (the first in that category to be spoken in French) and her American arrival in films like "Big Fish," "Public Enemies," "Nine," "Midnight in Paris," "Contagion," "Inception," and "The Dark Knight Rises," we have painted her in the light of being a luminous international star that graces dozens of magazine covers.  Those that don't dive deeper into her acting filmography won't see her frequent bravery as an actress to tackle the challenging and ugly roles. They'll only see the glamour and will be missing out on Marion's true talent as an actress.

If you want to see this power in action, seek out "Two Days, One Night," the new film from the Belgian directing team of brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  The Dardennes are one of seven two-time winners of the Palme d'Or at the famed Cannes Festival in France.  "Two Days, One Night" premiered and was entered into this year's Main Competition there and has since been wowing audiences on the festival circuit with screenings at 53 international film festivals, including the 50th Chicago International Film Festival locally this past October.  The film will be Belgium's submission for the Academy Awards and Best Foreign Language Film and it's a real contender for that honor.

As I was alluding to, "Two Days, One Night" is a plain and ordinary story that is sought be told in a plain and ordinary way, without glamour and flashiness.  It is a fine example of straight-forward, no-nonsense storytelling.  Cotillard plays Sandra, the working mother and breadwinner for her small family in Seraing, Belgium.  She has been home from her job at a solar panel factory dealing with clinical depression that she hides from her co-workers and superiors.  The grip of depression is still strong at home as Sandra is distant with her helpful and dedicated husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, a frequent Dardenne collaborator).

The film beings at the moment Sandra loses her job.  Her miserly boss Jean-Marc (another Dardenne veteran Olivier Gourmet) is forced to make cuts and holds an employee vote without Sandra present.  The workers had to decide whether to let someone go and retain their yearly bonuses or keep everyone and receive no bonus.  Sandra lost.  One of Sandra's co-workers informs her of this decision and she is able to confront and convince Jean-Marc to hold a second vote to decide her fate.  She has the film title's amount of time to convince her co-workers to change their vote.

Over that period of time, Manu drives Sandra around the city for her to visit and speak with her ten key co-workers personally.  One by one, she meets them face-to-face and experiences an onslaught emotions and reactions.  Sandra herself, driven as the earner for her family, knows the urgency, but still feels like a beggar with wounded pride.  In return, over and over, she receives the full spectrum of anger, shame, sympathy, indifference, selfishness, neediness, refusal, passion, urgency, genuine help, and tumultuous swings of confidence and failure.  As these visits grow, so does the impact of "Two Days, One Night."   

With Cotillard commanding the screen and using none of her looks and star power, the Dardennes have created an intentionally minimalistic film that packs a punch without the need for gaudy theatrics.  If this was a Hollywood film, this storyline of encounters would be backed by over-acted reactions, flashy star cameos, unrealistic results, a ticking clock like a "24" episode, and a heaping pile "Norma Rae"-level workplace politics and finger-pointing backed by some sweeping musical score that crescendos to a predictable and manufactured happy ending.  A Hollywood film would beat those themes of confidence, sympathy, and pity to death with syrup and imposed drama.  What started as realistic and approachable would be rendered melodramatic and fake.  Need an example?  Just look at Tom Hanks' "Larry Crowne," an enjoyable, but schmaltzy film.  

Because of the focused simplicity and plainness of this story and the artistic intent of the Dardenne brothers, none of those mistakes of over-indulgence occur.  "Two Days, One Night" runs an urgent 95 minutes and contains no musical score whatsoever.  Its observant and handheld camerawork, brought to the screen by cinematographer Alain Marcoen, skews towards long takes and intimate close-ups.  No one is stealing any scenes from the story and the progression remains unpredictable to the very end.  The Dardennes deserve strong credit for crafting this screenplay to contain the most essential brushstrokes and skipping the fluff.  You do not need to be well-versed in lofty foreign cinema knowledge to understand, connect with, and enjoy "Two Days, One Night."  

This plays out the way it would in real life and you feel that vibe, even with a bonafide movie star in the lead.  If this was Julia Roberts, we would be rolling our eyes and unable to shake our preconceived notions.  Because it's a fearless actress like Cotillard, the plight of Sandra churns with dramatic effect.  The camera and the emotion never leaves her presence in the film and she holds your interest and buoys your hope for every second of those 95 minutes.  For as much as she's "gone Hollywood," Marion Cotillard still goes back overseas and puts together towering and daring lead performances like "Rust and Bone" from 2012 and this film from the Dardennes.  She is more than Oscar-worthy for "Two Days, One Night."  So far this awards season (follow the action on my Awards Tracker), Cotillard has won four Best Actress awards from both the print and online critics groups in New York and Boston.  Those aren't lucky wins.  Those are wins over Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, and others.   Her performance is worth your time alone to find this foreign film gem.  

LESSON #1: FIGHTING FOR YOUR JOB AND LIVELIHOOD-- The number one hook for your investment in "Two Days, One Night" is picturing and imagining what you would do in Sandra's situation.  What would have if you lost your job?  Would you fight to get it back or settle with being resigned to your fate?  Could you even get the chance to fight and get it back?  How far would you go in that fight?  Could you swallow the pride to face your peers and ask for assistance?  Sandra chooses to fight and try and it is a incredibly difficult journey for her to undertake.  Not all of us could do what Sandra does in this film and not all of us would know how we would react and operate if faced with a similar adversity.  This is very poignant stuff.  

LESSON #2: YOU NEED PEOPLE WILLING TO LISTEN TO YOUR SIDE OF THE STORY-- The weight on Sandra is one thing, but we see remarkable glimpses into the weight on those Sandra needs to confront and convince.  Each fellow employee has their own reasons for their vote between needing a bonus or letting someone go.  There is sympathy and selfishness.  Some is warranted and some is not.  The important part is the willingness to listen.  It took courage for Sandra to come to them in a moment of need.  Some honor that courage with the willingness to listen, and such is the right thing to do.  You may not agree and you might not be able to help, but you should always take the time to listen and hear the other person out.

LESSON #3: PITY AS A FORM OF LOVE-- In as simple as this narrative is, the notion of pity looms enormously.  The Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined two large ideas on pity that reach a great deal deeper than Mr. T taunting "I pity the fool" in "Rocky 3."  One, before a person can feel pity for another human, the person must first have experienced suffering of a similar type, and the person must also be somewhat distanced or removed from the sufferer.  Second, in order to feel pity, a person must believe that the person who is suffering does not deserve their fate.  For this lesson, pity is mixed with love.  Pity is not a weak emotion.  It is a necessary feeling.  In many doctrines, people are taught to love and help those in need and any cost.  Sometimes that takes more than donating a couple of bucks here and there for charity.  In this film, Sandra needs more than charity.  She needs people to take a greater and more impactful action.  That takes sharing love by way of taking pity on someone in need and doing something necessary and substantial about it.