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about Thomas Zachary Toles
Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Catherine Salée, Baptiste Sornin, Alain Eloy, Myriem Akheddiou, Fabienne Sciascia, Hicham Slaoui
Film Corner Guest Review
By Thomas Zachary Toles
Unembellished Beauty in Two Days, One Night
In Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), the Dardenne brothers wield their harsh naturalistic style to position viewers amidst the often humiliating anguish of financially strained working class life. Yet, through the pain, a sensitive humanistic viewpoint emerges. The numerous figures who populate the story are not romantic evocations of poverty nor are there any cane-twirling villains. The film is a gorgeous series of vulnerable conversations in understatedly dire circumstances. The Dardennes create stunning tension by pitting the ordinary there-ness of its characters against the prodigious capitalist forces surrounding and constricting them.
After Sandra (Marion Cotillard) suffers a nervous breakdown, her not-so-sunny coworkers at the solar panel factory learn that they will each receive a €1000 bonus if she is made redundant. The whole affair is put to a depraved vote, leaving Sandra with two days and one night to beg each of her colleagues to put her above themselves. Sandra methodically approaches as many of her coworkers as she can reach, finding some understanding, some fearful, others furious. She, and the filmmakers, are keenly aware of the emotional power of a face, up close and personal. Sandra’s goal is not so much to make a complex argument as to bare her pathetic humanity to those who have plenty to gain by ignoring it.
I typically expect to like Cotillard more than I do. In James Gray’s The Immigrant, I found her unable to rise above the sanctimonious suffering of the character as written. With the Dardennes, however, Cotillard seems unflinchingly exposed, internalizing her character’s intermittent ugliness. Her strength is impressive without revelling in the glory of “I-am-victim-hear-me-roar.” The rest of the actors all pull their weight to fill the drab, industrial landscape with a careworn community.
Sandra’s biggest obstacle, larger than her depressive anxiety and medication dependence, is shame. And while the filmmakers are sympathetic to her desperate mission, they are equally careful to imbue each of her targets with their fair share of desperate humanity. With each rejection Sandra faces, she and the viewer are painfully reminded of the costs of her victory. Even the true hard asses, as Renoir put it, have their reasons—no relationship in the film is shallow.
Even the seemingly inexhaustible support of Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra’s husband, is undercut by Sandra’s suggestion that he no longer loves her. The film leaves it ambiguous whether Sandra’s assessment is a purely deluded symptom of her misery or if Manu’s efforts are fuelled more by pity than affection. His uncompromising aid keeps her going but it is possible that Manu, on some level, views her employment as a guilt-cleansing prerequisite for their future separation.
In many ways, the film is a hate letter to the capitalist system that makes its premise possible. The situation will be settled by twisted democracy, a practice that seems far more barbaric than it is typically regarded. To maintain the mediocre status quo at work, more than half of the employees must choose to vote against their own self-interest on a piece of paper marked either “Sandra” or “Bonus.” It is no surprise that many have trouble empathizing. Even if Sandra wins, those who saw their bonuses as essential may not soon forget what she took from them. In the end, Sandra is presented with a prototypical paradox of capitalist reasoning.
Yet, despite the bleak scenario, the film is not bereft of hope. It insists upon the importance of fellowship in impossible circumstances. When Sandra’s pleas meet an understanding ear, the faint burst of buoyancy is palpable. In one scene, after she has interrupted Timur’s (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) soccer to wearily recite her petition, his apologetic collapse restores some bewildered life to Sandra’s features.
The monumental emotional payoff of the film’s final scenes is made possible by the Dardennes’ patient pacing. We are forced to fully experience the arduousness and excess of Sandra’s journey, rendering the seemingly brief period described in the film’s title as both fleeting and endless.
Over the course of that weekend, the filmmakers present numerous characters honestly and delicately. One by one, we are gently acquainted with different voices, postures, mannerisms. Each figure independently may not leave an immediate impression. But at the end of the film, when Sandra sees the now familiar faces who voted for her gathered together in a single room, the sheer humanity on display is overwhelming. The frame is simply saturated with personhood, bursting at the seams with prosaic beauty.
My chest tightened; I could hardly bear to look.
Therein, in the unembellished revelation of people as they are, lies one of cinema’s greatest gifts.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: *****
Two Days, One Night will be released 8/25/15 on Blu-Ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection with a new 2K digital master, supervised by director of photography Alain Marcoen and approved by directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Added value supplements include new interviews with the Dardennes and actors Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione, When Léon M.’s Boat Went Down the Meuse for the First Time (1979), a forty-minute documentary by the Dardennes, featuring a new introduction by the directors, a new tour of the film’s key locations with the directors, To Be an I, a new video essay by critic Kent Jones, the trailer, an essay by critic Girish Shambu and new cover design by Eric Skillman.
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