Second Breakfast: ‘Two Days, One Night’ Is a *Good* European Movie

SecondBreakfast-01Wow, last week’s review felt pretty negative. I sure did rip on foreign movies… and the entire film industry at large. Sorry about that. What can I say? Terrible movies put me in a bad mood, and Force Majeure was indeed, despite what I explicitly said to the contrary just seven days ago, terrible. If it sounded at all like I teetered on the verge of giving up on foreign cinema, I now happily put your no doubt worried mind at ease: I haven’t. For every hundred or so derivative, lazy, melodramatic heaps of trash, there still emerges at least one film worth watching. Hallelujah.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Les Films du Fleuve

Les Films du Fleuve

The Plot: Finally on the upswing from a recently debilitating bout of depression, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) discovers that her coworkers, in light of her recent absence, have received the ultimatum to either receive a thousand euro bonus apiece, or keep her as a colleague. She manages to convince her boss to hold a repeat ballot (since, you know, the first one didn’t go so well), and sets out to persuade a majority of her sixteen coworkers to vote in her favor instead of for their much-needed bonuses. She has, as per the title, two days and one night to do so.

It’s foreign? I guess it’s not an inspirational success story. It’s Belgian? Aw, crap. This movie is going to be devastating. Refreshingly, Two Days, One Night shies away from excessive tragedy in favor of a much more satisfying balance between melancholy, doom, and hope. The real success here emerges from writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s insistence that everyone has their reasons. Although Sandra is obviously the main character, she doesn’t strike the audience as the only deep figure around, and although her job is at stake and she’s recovering from depression, the filmmakers avoid victimization. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty cut and dry story about corporate greed, and how most people would take a bonus over helping someone keep her job, but instead what unfolds is a brilliant slice-of-life drama that tries to view every angle of the problem. As Sandra meets each of her colleagues, we see a different set of circumstances, we see people who work multiple jobs and need the bonus to make ends meet, we see morally grounded people wracked with guilt over the decision, people whose home lives are falling apart, etc. Though most of the characters only appear in one scene each, the writing is so precise and concentrated that it produces fully rounded human beings in nearly every case.

Les Films du Fleuve Ice cream is an important facet of life.

Les Films du Fleuve
Ice cream is an important facet of life.

The realistic but clearly very deliberate screenplay pairs nicely with an almost Dogme-style (bum bum bum) camera work. The Dardenne brothers shoot the entire film on location, without any tricks in lighting or sound, they use a handheld camera throughout and the film has no non-diegetic soundtrack (not even in the end credits). While most similar attempts at realism feel forced and occasionally distracting, the techniques here fit the story and the theme beautifully, and ultimately serve to help, not hinder the overall message. To no one’s great surprise, I’m sure, Marion Cotillard sinks into her performance as well as ever, but doesn’t overpower the narrative with too much ACTING, if you know what I mean.

Les Films du Fleuve This is acting, normal, down-to-earth, lower-cased acting.

Les Films du Fleuve
This is acting, normal, down-to-earth, lower-cased acting.

Performances and direction aside, what really sets this film apart from the dribble that plagues us every day and every night from the unrelenting and poisonous maw that is the cinematic industrial machine, is its heartfelt dedication to its characters and surprisingly hopeful message. On the surface, this film concerns a woman whose job might slip from her fingers at any moment, and lesser filmmakers would use that as an opportunity to bash some audience skulls with a sledgehammer-esque message about the soul-crushing pointlessness of human existence, and after ninety-five minutes, literally no one in their right mind would feel in any way satisfied with their viewing experience. Instead, the Dardennes weave a compelling portrait of depression and its arduous recovery process. Eventually, it becomes clear that whether or not Sandra keeps her job is less important than whether or not she finally, fully overcomes her crippling psychological condition. The performances and style of the film help produce an honest and emotional (but not melodramatic) depiction of this familiar struggle, and a fantastic character arc. That’s really a necessity for making me like a movie, which is precisely part of why I did not like Force Majeure, but damn it, Two Days, One Night is a solid, fulfilling watch. Foreign cinema, like its goodoldamerican counterpart, is doing just fine, folks.

 

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