Sunday, November 9, 2014

AFI Film Festival: "Two Days, One Night" Review

I'd never attended a screening at a film festival before Friday night so I did not know what to expect, but man, it was quite the experience. If you're a movie-lover and you have a chance to watch a movie at a film festival, any film festival, take that chance whenever possible. The experience is heightened when the director(s) and the star of the film happen to be there too. I've been to screenings where there were Q&A's afterwards, but Friday night's screening of the Dardennes brothers' "Two Days, One Night" was just a very classy affair. Almost too classy. I had to ask myself at one point, "do I belong here?"

It was surreal. And it was also surreal to get to see Marion Cotillard in person, as well as the Dardennes brothers. While, sure, it's indeed exciting to see the beautiful and talented actress in the flesh, getting a chance to sit through a Q&A with the Dardennes brothers was a trip in itself. American audiences, unfortunately, may not be too aware of these guys, but since 1996 these Belgium brothers have made a movie every three years and each time, they achieve great acclaim. Just look at it this way: their LOWEST rated film on rottentomatoes is "L'Enfant" which is at 86%... and "L'Enfant" won the top prize at Cannes back in 2005. Not too shabby, eh?

Their work is now more visible thanks to The Criterion Collection putting out "La Promesse" and "Rosetta" on Blu-Ray which were the first two films of theirs that really put them on the map. They've also released The Dardennes's most recent film "The Kid With a Bike" on Blu-Ray, a film you can currently catch on Instant Netflix. Even so, with two P'alme D'ors under their belt, three films in the Criterion Collection, and the consistent critical acclaim, these guys still seem to come up under the radar.

And that might be because of the general understatedness of their films. The Dardennes's films aren't overtly cinematic or showy. They are about low-middle class/working class Belgian people and their day-to-day struggles. I've read one critic describe their films as being "poetic neo-realism" and I think that's an apt description. Their best work reminds me of Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist films, although they've cultivated a style all on their own.

And while I have only seen a handful of their films (really, because the others are so hard to find), the movies of theirs that I have seen have always left a considerable mark on me. And "Two Days, One Night" is no different in that regard.

The aforementioned Marion Cotillard is the star of "Two Days." Her character, Sandra, is a wife and a mother of two. She's been suffering through a serious bout of depression, something she claims to have gotten over when the movie starts. Her depression lead to her missing work for a period of time, but now she's back and ready to get going again. Unfortunately, her boss has decided that they don't really need her anymore and has given his employees (and her co-workers) this damning ultimatum: either you each get a 1,000 Euro bonus or Sandra keeps her job.

Sandra's co-workers hold a meeting regarding this issue, without Sandra knowing about it, and they ultimately vote 14-2 in favor of getting a bonus. Naturally, when Sandra finds out about this, she's devastated. She's just been through a serious episode of depression, decided she's ready to go back, and now she's getting fired? And worst yet, her co-workers agree to her being let go? What's a person to do in that situation?

Luckily, she's been given a second chance by her other boss, who's agree to make the co-workers vote again that following Monday. There's talk of the co-workers being co-erced into voting against Sandra and so another round of voting will occur, to make things more fair. But now Sandra's about to embark on a rather uncomfortable journey: trying to convince each of her 16 co-workers to vote for her, despite the fact that they'd be losing 1,000 Euros.

"Two Days, One Night," starts off as a rather rough journey. We are literally following Sandra as she visits each and every one of her co-workers. Either she phones them, visits their home, or tracks them down elsewhere. Watching someone go through this would normally be a laborious process, but that's where the Dardennes differ from your average filmmaker.

Through the course of its 95 minute time, you soon become deeply engrossed into Sandra's life. There's her ever-supporting husband and oblivious, but sweet kids. But, really, this is all about her. Marion Cotillard appears in every scene and she manages to find an incredible balance in showcasing her character's depression without ever delving into melodrama. As a result, it's easy to get captivated in this world.

Even better is the way this film explores empathy and how each of these 16 co-workers handle Sandra's ultimatum. Another brilliant stroke from the Dardennes is that none of co-workers react in a similar way. When we meet these people, they each have differences in opinion and behavior that is striking. Some feel uncomfortable but are firm in refusing to let go of their bonuses, some break down in tears at the thought of letting Sandra go----the Dardennes don't judge or favor any character over the other, we just see these characters for who they really are: as flawed human beings.

There are many points throughout the film where Sandra tries desperately to stop fighting for her job. Visiting each of her co-workers embarrasses her. It makes her feel like a beggar. But in embarking on this little journey, the wonderful thing is how Sandra slowly and quietly begins uniting her co-workers, establishing a stronger bond among them that they may not have had before. There's something very heart-warming, yet real about how the Dardennes let the events unfold. Sandra forces her co-workers to look her in the eyes, empathize with her situation, and then tell her that she must be fired. And what's even more brilliant is how the Dardennes turn the tables on her and put her in a similar situation. How will she react when she has to decide the fate of one of her co-workers?

There were a handful of occasions where the movie dips a little too much into the melodramatic, and the film is almost too light in its overall approach. It definitely does not have the same gut-punch that their 1999 film "Rosetta" had. "Rosetta" follows a rather similar plot but in much rougher circumstances. "Rosetta" is not a film I'd like to revisit, but it's one of the more powerful dramas I've ever seen. "Two Days, One Night" isn't quite as powerful or as wholly gripping, but it will find a way to stick in your head ever so subtly.

The Dardennes continue their incredible winning streak with this sweet little gem of a film and while Cotillard's work in "The Immigrant" from earlier this year may have been more showy, her performance in "Two Days, One Night" might be her best yet. She fit into the Dardennes world rather easily and makes me hope the Belgium brothers work with her again sometime in the future.  She's at the top of her game, the directors are the top of their game, and the end result is pretty magical.

Grade: A-

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