Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Two Days, One Night"

Director(s): Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Runtime: 95 minutes

The entire plot of Two Days, One Night, from Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, would exist as a mere montage in other stories. Yet the Dardennes are rarely ones to race through stories, and spend their films unpacking the smaller moments in the lives of the working class. Two Days, One Night is instantly recognizable as a Dardenne bros. film, yet it also finds the directing duo working with a rarely seen sense of urgency in their storytelling. It's a classic ticking clock scenario, as filtered through the grounded, humanist viewpoint that the brothers have honed over their careers. The race against time makes for a more accessible film without watering down the Dardennes' skills behind the camera.

For Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the story's shrinking window of opportunity is a matter of life and death. Sandra's boss at her factory job has given the rest of the staff an ultimatum: Sandra keeps her job, or everyone else gets a bonus. With the vote set for the following Monday, Sandra only has the upcoming weekend to canvas the 16 co-workers to get enough votes to keep her job and keep her family from going on welfare. Though Sandra has support from her husband and a few co-workers already, she must also face her own doubts about herself, made worse by a recent bout of crippling depression.

Initially, the depression angle seems poised to get in the way of the time sensitive story. The Dardennes make Cotillard cry and collapse so much in the first 20 or 30 minutes and it doesn't feel earned. We know Sandra's situation, but we haven't spent enough time with her for this series of mini-breakdowns to mean anything. Instead of discarding the depression, however, the Dardennes keep it yoked to the main story. Thankfully, it's a decision that ultimately works in the film's favor. Two Days, One Night's plot is the epitome of simplicity (90% is Sandra finding and talking to her colleagues), and as Sandra gathers more confidence, the film becomes significantly better at linking her depression to her more obvious struggle.

Sandra is one of the Dardennes' best protagonists, and Cotillard (arguably the biggest star they've worked with) is perfect casting for the role. Even when forced to cry more than necessary, she beautifully captures Sandra's desperation and her self doubt, which the depression certainly doesn't help with. Despite the tears, this is one of Cotillard's most restrained, naturalistic roles. Thanks to the Dardennes, it's also one of the actresses' finest performances, easily rivaling her Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf, albeit on a different end of the dramatic spectrum. Her eyes seem more expressive than ever, and she's also begun to tap into her expressive face with subtle twists of her mouth. 

Beyond Cotillard front and center work, it's impressive how well the Dardennes keep Two Days, One Night from falling into simplicity. Sandra's co-workers, even those who vote in her favor, all have valid reasons for wanting their bonuses. Some refuse to vote for Sandra with solemn respect, while others are outright hostile. The script finds shrewd ways of varying Sandra's speech, in which she explains the vote and what's going on, to illuminate how comfortable she is with each person. All of the actors playing Sandra's associates, save for one scenery-chewing crier, are quite good with the brief time they're afforded by the script. With Cotillard stripped of the usual movie star glamor, she and the rest of the cast blend together, even though the star is the only recognizable face.

The Dardennes' direction and writing is among their most confident, but a few head-scratching decisions in the film's middle make it harder to decide if Two Days is a great film or merely a very good one. The scene that represents Sandra's lowest point in the story is timed to coincide with an overly calculated arrival of a guest. As a result, when Sandra has to try and undo a horrible mistake, it's difficult not to laugh at the absurdity of the timing. The Dardennes have always been gifted with an ability to, in their minimalist and gritty way, maintain a film's tone. So when Sandra blurts out her mistake to her husband (Fabrizio Rigione), it's jarring enough to prompt a double-take (the audience I saw it with certainly had no problem letting out a laugh). If the scene is an attempt at pitch black comedy, it's a poorly placed one that undercuts the film's earnest drama.

Even so, Two Days, One Night is still one of the Dardennes most confident and most accessible films to date (and that's not just because of Cotillard's presence). By setting the film up with such desperation and urgency, the directors have created a story that covers several meaty angles (economic struggle, depression, etc...) with the momentum of a thriller. The film's ending is close to being pat when taken on its own, but the story's overall conclusion is mature and nuanced, forgoing the temptation to wrap things up with a Hollywood happy ending or a total downer. Both approaches would do a disservice to how well Two Days, One Night once again exemplifies the Dardennes' skill with capturing the lives of the working class, where any success or failure is just another moment in life, ready to be followed by countless others even after the screen goes dark.

Grade: B+/A- 

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