Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)

Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT    (Deux jours, une nuit)     B               
Belgium France  Italy  (95 mi)  2014  d:  Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne           

An excoriating critique of capitalism, brilliantly revealing how it isolates and divides workers, pitting one against the other, where over the course of the film the Dardennes turn this into a modern era horror story.  What’s most striking, however, is how it’s framed in such ordinary circumstances, where the fear of losing one’s job is the overriding concern, capable of driving one to do the unthinkable.  While the opportunity to work with an actress of the stature of Marion Cotillard may have proven too alluring to resist, the film would probably have played much better with a lesser known, unknown actress, much like their earlier efforts, especially ROSETTA (1999), where the actress’s daily struggle might mirror the role of the character in the film.  Part of Cotillard’s role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother working at a small solar panel factory, is her invisibility, where she is forced to come out of the anonymity of her character to make herself seen as she confronts each and every one of her fellow workers.  When trying to return from a medical leave, she discovers the company has instead decided to lay her off in order to pay the annual 1000 euro bonus to the rest of the workers.  When cornered in a parking lot, the owner agrees to hold a vote by secret ballot to alleviate allegations of pressure and intimidation by the foreman, and if a majority of workers agree to vote for her return instead of their bonuses, then he will honor their decision.  He is of the opinion, however, based on an initial vote tallied by the foreman, that most everyone prefers the bonus.  This leaves her little time, as indicated by the title, to change people’s minds.  While a worker on leave could be confronted by any number of illnesses, such as losing a child, recovery from an injury or an accident, to having a more serious medical diagnosis such a cancer, but in Sandra’s case she suffers from depression (another invisible disease), seen taking large doses of Xanax, well beyond the recommended limit, in an attempt to maintain her sanity throughout this ordeal.  The idea for the film is based upon real incidents occurring in French factories, but also Belgium, Italy, and the United States, where a worker was laid off so the rest of the workers could get their bonuses, all of which raise questions of solidarity in the workforce.   

Shot in Seraing, an industrial town in Liège, in Wallonia, the French-speaking section of Belgium where the Dardennes were born and raised, and where all their previous films were shot as well, Cotillard had to change her French accent to Belgian for the film—no minor undertaking, as she’s the first non-Belgian actor to ever work with the directors.  By all accounts, many believe she was robbed at Cannes by not winning Best Actress, but this is an understated, minimalist, low-key film without any major dramatic moments.  Experts in social realist films, this is most reminiscent of a Bresson film (Introduction to Bresson), a meticulous film constructionist who downplayed the performances of his actors, where this film is based upon a repeating, cyclical theme where Sandra literally goes door to door tracking down her coworkers, asking them to vote to save her position by sacrificing their bonuses.  While this is incredibly humiliating, to say the least, it leaves her emotionally exhausted and demoralized afterwards when she realizes what an uphill struggle this is turning out to be.  Shot in chronological order, most of the scenes are long takes culminating with stressful discussions at someone’s front door, usually interrupting them from their weekend activities with their children, where the situation couldn’t be more awkward, as in an economic downturn, everyone needs the money, with some in desperate straits.  While it’s hard to believe someone is placed in this position, literally begging for their job back, the Dardennes don’t over-dramatize or turn this into a melodrama, confining their focus to exposing what each of these people must be going through, literally providing a window into their souls, as for each, this is a gut-wrenching decision.  People are surprisingly honest with one another, as is Sandra, who is never pushy or argumentative, but simply presents the reality of the situation, then must gracefully accept the fact that not everyone is going to support her, even some who sympathize with her.  In some cases, the husbands aggressively bark out their opinions while their wives (who work with her) meekly stand in silence, unable to alter the balance of power in their homes.   

Beautifully portraying the accumulative stress and mental anguish, Cotillard anchors the film with her warmth and sense of decency, where the urgency of her situation mirrors how other people live and the pressures they face, where in troubled times it’s extremely hard to support her efforts.  Nonetheless it’s a heroic act to summon the courage to embark on such a personally revealing journey, where you literally strip yourself naked standing completely vulnerable before your coworkers, always struggling to overcome feelings of hopelessness and despair.  Perhaps the weakest character in the film is Sandra’s own husband Manu, Fabrizio Rangione in his fifth film with this directing team, whose pathetic struggle to continually push his wife feels overly abusive, though perhaps necessary when she’s incessantly on the verge of giving up.  We don’t see an emotional connection between the two, or any hint of happiness, but their interaction together represents a tired couple that is used to struggling to get through every day.  Perhaps the most beautiful scenes involve music, including Petula Clark singing the French version of the 1963 Jackie DeShannon song “Needles and Pins” Petula Clark - La Nuit N'en Finit Plus - YouTube, while the scene of the film is the euphoric emotional release expressed to the song of Van Morrison and Them singing a teen anthem from the 60’s, “Gloria” THEM (Featuring VAN MORRISON) - LIVE 1965 - "Gloria" YouTube (2:47).  While Sandra is literally terrified at what will happen behind the knock at each door, it’s a petrifying journey set by her boss against her colleagues, where no one protests against the inherent cruelty of the employer’s actions, instead it’s a barbaric act commonly accepted in the modern workplace.  Sandra has a husband and child, perceived as a woman’s dutiful role in the 50’s, but in today’s world she needs a place in society where she can be of use.  Work has come to represent a sense of purpose in people’s lives, even in the routine work of factory jobs, without which many people feel lost and useless, expressed in the film as confronting one’s worst fear, “living on the dole.”  Despite the anger and outright hostility that arises, where the foreman (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) blames her for “stirring up this shit,” this is an unconventional exposé of the meaning of work in people’s lives, where to some their fellow coworkers are an indispensable part of their lives, like one of the family, where they spend eight to ten hours a day alongside each other, while others routinely ignore the social dimension of working with others for a period of years.  In this film, the Dardennes allow the characters to determine the outcome by challenging their humanity, which has greater significance than some predetermined moral lesson that would quickly be forgotten.     

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