Friday, June 12, 2015

Two Days, One Night Review

In Two Days, One Night, the Dardenne brothers have a story that any audience will find compelling: a woman in Belgium must get coworkers to vote for her job or their €1000 bonus. Even if the economy didn't resemble a dystopian nightmare, we can all put ourselves in her shoes, and it's terrifying.

So we follow our lead, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), as she uses her weekend to sway nine of the people who already voted in favor of the bonus. She has to track down her fellow employees to ask for their support, and she has no idea if she can influence any of them. But she also has two kids, a husband who works as a cook, and a mortgage that can't be paid without her salary.

Cotillard is an impeccable actress. She has a mastery over her expressions and her voice. Everything she does, every feeling she emotes, seems genuine. And, in Sandra, she gets a chance to show what she can do. Her work in Two Days is brilliant, and her Best Actress Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

As the film progresses, we get context for Sandra's problems and the pills we see her take now and then: the poor woman is just returning from sick leave for depression. This is the worst possible time for her to experience something as scary and emotionally crushing as the loss of a job.

By and large, TDON exhibits fairly naturalistic dialogue. Details about the life of Mrs. Sandra Bya come out slowly, because the characters don't talk about things that they already know just for the sake of the viewer. When these things are revealed, however, they are laid out very clearly and in a matter-of-fact manner. Whether it's from her husband, Manu, or her young daughter, Maxime, information is either half-stated or wholly spilled-out.

There were times when it felt a little too expository, but I think it works well enough. I also shouldn't underestimate the difference between understanding French and having to read a translation off the bottom of the screen, and either the way Belgians speak or the translation itself could explain my occasional doubt...

But that's really such a small issue. It's all about the journey Sandra goes on and the impact that all this tumult has on her. Whether she's bawling her eyes out, or displaying a jumble of micro-expressions, Marion Cotillard does with her body what the best screenwriter in the world would find challenging. Even the way that she walks or moves her arms speaks a lot. God, it's such a pleasure just to watch her act.

I haven't seen any prior work by the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc. Two Days, One Night is an excellent effort on their part, as co-writers, co-directors, and co-producers. I cannot think of a better way to have captured this particular story on film, and I'm a little embarrassed because I assumed that this kind of premise was the product of two very young men. As you can see in the vid below, the Dardennes are not young men, at least not in body.

The camera work is often very casual - always shifting slightly as if everything were filmed with a camcorder. Sure, some shots are set up carefully and planned out - they all look lovely - but those are in the minority here.

The fly-on-the-wall style predominates, where people may fall into or out of the frame, and the camera never tracks anyone, as Scorsese, Fincher, and PTA often do. In TDON, the camera is static, merely panning to follow people when they leave your field of vision. Overall, this visual design has the effect of immersing you in the narrative, of making what plays out before you even more engrossing.

This movie is a character study, and it frequently shows a lot of respect for those characters. In this kind of story, it would be easy to "play to the audience" by making Sandra's colleagues into caricatures. But none of her encounters involve people behaving in an unnatural way, and quite a lot of them are sympathetic. Even though only the lead gets a proper arc here, the people that she debates and implores are treated with some amount of humanity and respect. I was pleased that, right up to the ending, a lot of ambiguity is given to all sides in this tale.

I can't describe more of the cast without giving away plot details - I don't want to take away from the pleasure of your viewing experience. It's a shame, as the actors here turn in very solid performances, especially Fabrizio Rongione as Manu, who should be up for Husband of the Year. But I can't miss this opportunity to talk about Marion Cotillard's role, and the picture's depiction of depression.

At the story's start, Sandra is about to fall down in grief and despair. Depression already has the effect of making a person feel distant, defeated, and alone - an effect that lingers even once the person has started to come out of it. With the prospect of being fired - losing their mortgage, perhaps pushed into public housing, having to collect unemployment - she's at the brink of a total collapse. As with any depressed person under pressure, this threat feels insurmountable and horrifying.

Seldom have I seen a character who conveys how depression saps the strength right out of you, how it seems like too much effort to do anything - even to fight for those things that are most important to you. The dips and swings in her moods are very true-to-life, and Sandra is presented as troubled, but not insane. Even when she goes through a neurotic episode, the camera captures the cautious and methodical behavior of people who are suffering from a strong neurosis. I'm very, very pleased with how seriously and honestly the movie treats this aspect of her character - in addition to the attention given to it as an issue that affects everyone around her, not just the depression sufferer and her family.

There is exactly one moment in this fine, fine film that feels badly-written; I feel strongly enough about it to reveal the content of the scene. One of the coworkers tells Sandra that he only voted for her because he didn't want to go against the majority, and that it's very important for him to be aligned with the larger group. It comes too near to making an overt statement about society, and reducing the supporting cast to a bunch of archetypes. And that just seems genuinely cheap. The roles are not presented this way throughout the rest of TDON, so it doesn't even synch up with the internal tone of the piece.

And, really, from a more simple perspective: the coworker's lines will make you say "Oh, yeah, a writer definitely wrote that, because people don't ever talk in that fashion." It's one wart on a great piece of work - it certainly doesn't derail what came before it - but it was so clumsy and misjudged that I wanted to highlight it.

Two Days One, Night was such a good movie. I was very impressed by what the actors and the Dardennes produced. The movie made me happy, sad, and left a lot to think and talk about regarding the modern workplace, the nature of people, and depression. Seriously, I would recommend this picture to anyone for many, many reasons, but its approach to depression is just excellent, and I would see it for that alone. Please check out this movie whenever you can - it's a wonderful drama, and I can guarantee that you'll enjoy it.

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