Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dardennes "Days"

Belgium's Dardennes brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, are arthouse darlings, beloved for their intense dramas about the poor and the desperate.  They've won the Palme d'Or twice.  They were invited to join the Academy in 2012, despite none of their films having been nominated for any Oscars.  Well, at the time, they hadn't been.  This year The Dardennes' latest, "Two Days, One Night," nabbed a Best Actress nomination for its star, Marion Cotillard.

Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, who has just lost her job at a solar panel company under cruel circumstances.  Sandra took leave to recover from a nervous breakdown, and upon her return the boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) made it known that the company only had the funds to pay for either her salary or the other employees' much-anticipated bonuses.  The decision is left to the employees, who vote for the bonuses, but Sandra discovers the process was tampered with, and convinces Dumont to allow a redo the vote after the weekend.  She and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) take that time to track down each of the company's sixteen employees and try and convince them to give up their bonuses to save her job on Monday morning.

From the handful of other Dardennes' films I've seen, their work is very naturalistic, light on artifice, and often features improvised dialogue.  Their background is in documentaries and it shows.  "Two Days, One Night" is not a departure from this style, but it's easily their closest brush with mainstream filmmaking.  The scripting is is heavily structured, with some very conventional  story elements, and the social commentary is very direct.   "Two Days" feels tailor made for the era of recession and austerity, where even those with jobs are teetering on the brink.  Also, no matter how shabbily she's dressed or how tired she looks, Marion Cotillard is an international movie star whose presence completely dominates the film.  This is her picture as much as it is the Dardennes.' 

Cotillard is excellent here.  She manages quite early on to get us invested in Sandra, who is mentally fragile and wary of confrontation, but forces herself to keep knocking on the doors of her coworkers anyway.  There have been complaints from various critics that "Two Days" has a premise that's hard to swallow, and gets repetitive with the visits to so many barely differentiated employees, but it also credibly pushes Sandra through the emotional wringer.  The spiel she delivers to each new person might be the same, but you can see her attitude shifting over the course of the film, and every interaction is a little different, all completely unpredictable.  And Cotillard gets us to invest in all of them.  I wouldn't have removed a single encounter.

As a melodrama, the Dardennes' are in top form.  The tension is absolutely terrific.  I had a fairly good idea of how the story was going to end, but watching it play out is a thrill.  The Dardennes throw the viewer into the thick of the action and many details of the situation and the various relationships are only sorted out as the films goes on.  In fact, I don't think the audience is really clued in about what Sandra's really fighting against until nearly the end of the movie.  There are two final confrontations on Monday morning that are really the key to the whole movie, putting all the other events in a different context. 

"Two Days, One Night" has a more allegorical tone than the Dardennes' other films. Sandra's company is a little microcosm of a dog-eat-dog world where it's hard to fault anyone for looking out for their own interests. The filmmakers use this to explore a simple moral conundrum in a variety of different contexts and with different variations.  And I love that while Sandra experiences indifference and rejection, there's also more support and sympathy there than she expected.  It's a very positive outlook for glum economic times.  And though it's often wracking and goes to some dark places, the movie turns out to be a quietly uplifting one.  It's not the Dardennes' at their best, but it's the Dardennes' at their most accessible and enjoyable.

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