Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night

So much for labor solidarity. The workers of Sondra’s local have voted to allow management to lay her off so they can keep their bonuses. It will be a devastating blow to her and her family, but that’s her problem, not theirs. However, she has been granted a second vote, due to the foreman’s improper attempt to influence the outcome. With the encouragement of her husband Manu and a supportive workmate, Sondra will fight for her job, practicing retail politics at its most personal in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Sondra was already grappling with the debilitating clinical depression that contributed to her extended sick leave. Obviously, this will not help. Unfortunately, her time away convinced management they could make do with one less person and the unseen, barely referenced union agreed. Reportedly, the foreman told her co-workers management was determined to lay off somebody regardless of the vote, so they might as well get their bonuses out of the deal. The truth of that contention is a bit murky.

Armed with this new information, Sondra tries to buck-up and lobby her colleagues to allow her to stay, despite the very real financial cost they would have to bear. Thus proceeds a series of incredibly awkward conversations. Some react with bitter resentment, while others overflow with guilt. Each becomes an intense one-on-one encounter, but they all essentially start the same way. Unfortunately, the Dardennes’ naturalist ethos precludes them from fast-forwarding through Sondra’s familiar expository intros, but at least they always go someplace uncomfortably honest. In fact, she even learns some of her co-workers are in an even worse position, due to their abusive home lives and dicey legal standings.

Two Days is being billed as the Dardenne Brothers’ first collaboration with a major movie star, which must be news to Cécile de France, who starred in the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike, as well as Eastwood’s Hereafter and scores of high profile French films. Regardless, it is easy to see why the New York Film Critics Circle named Marion Cotillard best actress for her work as Sondra. It is a raw, earthy performance that eschews superficial flash for a deeper, darker means of expression. Sometimes it is painful to watch her (of course that was true of the ludicrously twitchy Meryl Streep in Ossage County, but for the opposite, less edifying reason).

Clearly, this is Cotillard’s show, but Fabrizio Rongione’s turn as the more stable Manu also makes quite a quiet impact. In fact, the entire ensemble is remarkably assured and uncompromisingly convincing, despite their radically differing levels of professional experience (as per usual in the Dardennes’ films). Arguably, each confrontation between Sondra and a co-worker could stand alone as a self-contained film, given the strength of the supporting cast.

Although Belgium selected Two Days as their official Foreign Language Academy Award submission, it did not make the shortlist. There is always critical favorite that gets snubbed and ironically this year it is Two Days, a film driven by the process of vote-counting. Although it is a bit repetitive as a whole, the individual performances and in-the-moment flashes of truth more than carry the film. Recommended for those who appreciate social drama and Francophone cinema, Two Days, One Night opens Christmas Eve (12/24) at the IFC Center in New York.