Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Two Days, One Night"

How strange it is that a single human element can simultaneously be a film’s greatest strength and the source of most of its shortcomings. But such is the case with Marion Cotillard’s lead performance in the Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne’s 9th feature-length film Two Days, One Night. Such a high-profile star casting decision rose more than a few eyebrows in the cinephile community, as the Dardenne Brothers had spent the quasi-totality of their filmography casting non-professional or unknown actors, of which three — Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione and especially Jérémie Renier — subsequently rose to certain prominence. However, their previous 2011 effort The Kid With The Bike had starred Belgian actress Cécile De France, so one may see the decision to cast Cotillard as a logical step forward. Regardless, fears that such an international star would stick out like a sore thumb in the Dardennes’ restrained and neorealist-influenced portrayal of working-class Belgium have proven to be only partially justified: Against all expectations, Marion Cotillard delivers a startlingly unglamorous and unassuming performance without once giving the impression of making ostensible efforts to do so; an achievement all the more impressive considering the potential her role — a depressive mother and wife struggling to keep both her psychological composure and her job after a sick leave — had to be used as a vehicle for patent award-baiting. However, the star-struck reverence with which Dardenne Brothers film her suffering ends up handicapping the film by its consequent relegation of smaller but no-less important actors to the sidelines.

Much of the film consists of variations on the same scene: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) goes to visit a coworker, explains her predicament and the upcoming revote that will decide her future, and then asks them to give up their pay bonus in order to save her job. Much of her dialogue in each of these scenes is the same, with several details – such as the number of remaining votes needed – changing throughout. In the best of these scenes, Cotillard’s performance takes a backseat in favour of her coworker’s, allowing their characters to grow and feed each other harmoniously. An example: During Sandra’s explanation of her situation to a stone-faced Julien (Laurent Caron), the camera pans from a close shot framed around her neck and shoulders to a similar shot around Julien then briefly goes down towards his son as he sends him away, before moving back to frame both characters in the same shot, a position it holds until a defeated Sandra turns around and walks back to her car only for Julien to come back in the shot for a few more hard questions about whether or not her boss still needs her. The entire scene takes place in a single shot that conspicuously abandons its protagonist in an attempt to extract what little emotions might slip through the cracks of her coworker’s seemingly inflexible face. Taken out of context (almost the entire film is shot on handheld cameras), the process may call attention to itself but is quickly eluded by the weight of the actors’ words and the discreet, tranquil force of their barely-moving bodies. Aided by the almost amateurish basicness of its setup – two people in front of a brick wall, the stiffness of Caron’s body language and vocal delivery, far from hindering the film’s attempts at realism, marvelously complements Cotillard’s slightly hunched posture, her blemished, heavily-lidded eyes and their persistent habit of lowering whenever she looks at her interlocutor for more than a couple of seconds. It perfectly encapsulates the dilemma and resulting inner conflict Sandra has to deal with: She needs her salary to afford her house, but she knows full well that many of her coworkers have a similar dependence on their promised pay bonus. She needs help, yet she is afraid to seek it out of a mixture of pride, growing hopelessness and the knowledge that she is interfering in others’ lives and plans.

There are sadly many other scenes that do not succeed as well with that premise, and that is where the Dardennes’ usually impeccable actors’ direction becomes problematic. In scenes such as her meeting with Willy (Alain Eloy) or virtually every scene involving her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), their camera is practically pasted to her and her control is rarely questioned, thus preventing a more thorough survey of any hidden feelings the scene may hold. An additional problem that tarnishes both the film and the Dardennes’ record is their uncharacteristically clumsy dialogue. Having apparently forgotten their knack for making the most banal and pedestrian words and phrases we use every day sound fresh and unpolished, the Brothers have peppered their script with heavy-handed emotional exposition that, far from the uncompromising simplicity of their greatest films such as L’Enfant or Rosetta, seems intent on taking the audience by the hand and telling them what to feel. This is evident from the very first scene, which sees Sandra waking up to a phone call, listening to the unheard bad news then walking to her bathroom to pop a pill and repeat to herself “I mustn’t cry…I mustn’t cry…”. The viewer does not yet know what has made her so upset, but the blatancy with which the scene attempts to grab their attention as well as its instruction on what to feel through dialogue that could come across as a form of reverse psychology, makes it a particularly clunky introduction. Part of this can be once again ascribed to the rapture that appears to have taken possession of the Dardenne Brothers as they follow Cotillard around the room struggling to maintain composure, as if to say “Look how amazing our actress is!” Which, it bears repeating, she is indeed. But as a general rule, a filmmaker should always keep the focus on the character rather than how good the character’s performer is.

It is a great shame that the Dardennes’ overreliance on their star performance prevents their film from reaching the heights they previously attained with just-as-truthful performances from good-but-not-quite-as-great actors. Theirs is a world of sound and sobriety, where the greatest bursts of beauty often come from the moments where their camera holds still for a while and allows all senses to converge as one. Such scenes are present in the film: the long close-up profile shot of an emotionally depleted Sandra in the front passenger seat of her car as her mobile phone rings insistently off-screen, goes silent and is subsequently replaced by Manu’s who picks it up; the masterfully-filmed suicide attempt scene, comprised of a very long medium shot from Sandra’s back with her face reflected in the bathroom mirror as she takes out all the Xanax tablets out of their plastic bars to swallow them. The sound team makes sure that every single rustle of plastic as the tablets come out of their containers is heard, that not a single gentle clank of them touching each other as she puts them in the cup is omitted, as the true nature of Sandra’s gesture slowly dawns on the horrified viewer.

If it has not supplanted The Son as the weakest film in the Dardenne Brothers’ filmography yet, Two Days, One Night is an arguably greater and more frustrating disappointment considering the amount of talent on display. After having achieved a certain kind of naturalist poetry with The Kid With The Bike, the Dardennes appear to have fallen back on a certain kind of formula based on a mishmash of their previous successes: Handheld cameras, a working-class setting, a sympathetic migrant worker or two, a couple of actors from the old guard (Rongione, and Olivier Gourmet, who has appeared in every Dardenne film since 1996’s The Promise) and an acclaimed female star in the leading role of a woman fighting for her fate. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with using familiar tropes, but comparison to previous films cannot help but induce the unpleasant sensation that the Dardenne Brothers might have run out of breath. Let us hope they will catch up soon.

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