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Labor Pains

Christine Plenus/Sundance Selects

Two Days, One Night (2014)

The arrival of Marion Cotillard's star wattage into the midst of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's template of realist urban travails in "Two Days, One Night" turns out to have little effect on the brothers' business model, which trundles merrily onward as if nothing untoward had happened. It does though bring to mind some fresh questions about their success rate, especially for any refuseniks already inclined to wonder how reliably they succeed at all.

The story is solid blue-collar drama; there's even a ticking-clock deadline. Sandra (Ms. Cotillard) has one weekend to persuade her work colleagues to decline a cash bonus and instead allow her to keep her job, after some extended sick leave for depression. Still medicated but urged on by husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she forces herself to visit each colleague in turn and appeal to his or her better nature. Social issues of community and exclusion are addressed; shop-floor politics is adroitly alluded to; and Sandra's fragility allows Ms. Cotillard to act up a Dardennes-scale storm. The workplace is a Walloon solar-panel factory, so there's a point in there about the precarious state of Europe's green economy too, should anyone care to read it.

Conspicuously more so than their last couple of outings, the brothers have risked building "Two Days, One Night" from familiar bits of dramatic timber. Sandra is often a passive protagonist, the better to ultimately rise above her problems. More than once she retreats to her bedroom in defeat just in time for the arrival of a timely motivational speech from the irreproachable Manu, or a visitor bringing good news. All this may be a lot like life; and sometimes life has the pattern of soap opera: one subplot — in which Sandra's girlfriend examines her own life after seeing Sandra's struggle — is on television somewhere at any given moment.

But in the presence of an actual movie star, it's legitimate to ask again if this adds up to a movie. Does a consistent handheld and tightly framed shallow focus style conjure rock-solid authenticity, or is it every bit as unreal as any other pattern? In the past the presence of raw guileless actors in the brothers' films has nudged the balance, but Ms. Cotillard is a performer of immense charisma as well as one of the screen's great sufferers; she's hardly just standing there, even when just standing there. When that much of an actor arrives at the focus of the Dardennes' deliberately flat unactorly style, the contradictions build up like static.


Opens on Aug. 22 in Britain and on Dec. 24 in the United States

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; director of photography, Alain Marcoen; edited by Marie-Hélène Dozo; production design by Igor Gabriel; costumes by Maïra Ramedhan-Levi; produced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Denis Freyd; released by Artificial Eye (Britain) and on Sundance Selects (United States). In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Marion Cotillard (Sandra), Fabrizio Rongione (Manu), Pili Groyne (Estelle) and Simon Caudry (Maxime).


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