Two Days, One Night (2014)

Deux_jours,_une_nuit_posterIf people watch Two Days, One Night, they’ll probably recognize one face and you’ll hear something similar to the following: “That’s the girl from Inception and the Dark Knight Rises right?” The more observant viewer might say something like: “Isn’t that Marion Cotillard?” And they would be right on either of these accounts and yet the Dardenne Brothers (who the average viewer, unfortunately, might not know), take Ms. Cotillard and place her in a completely different type of role altogether. They take an A-List Hollywood star and drop her in the every day, lower class world that the brothers themselves came out of. In fact, the story and most of their stories are set in Seraing, a French-speaking area of Belgium that is known for industry.

They have an immense fascination in simple people just trying to make ends meet. Most of their stories have mundane narratives like The Kid with a Bike (2011), and Two Days, One Night is little different in that respect. It’s so basic in conception and yet in this banal and rough-edged world, the Dardennes find immense beauty.

Our chief subject is Sandra, a young woman who is married has two kids and has just battled her way back from depression. Undoubtedly it was a tough road, but she is obviously resilient and ready to get back to work. After all her family needs the money because her husband only works at a restaurant. But her whole reality is changed in a matter of minutes when she learns she will be laid off. Her company can either keep her on or give all their other employees bonuses. The majority took the bonus over Sandra. Her work friend Juliette buys her another ballot for the following Monday, so Sandra has a few days to try and plead her case. But she’s done fighting. She’s tired and defeated before she begins. It’s her husband Manu who urges her forward and reluctantly Sandra follows through.

This is the core of the film as Sandra goes from home to home, ringing doorbells, and talking with the people hidden away in their homes. They are no longer her faceless colleagues, but soon they become living, breathing people. Just like Sandra, they have a personal stake in this decision. Maybe it’s to pay for a daughter’s schooling, remodeling a home, or trying to stay afloat as a single parent. There are those who are simply fearful of being laid off and those who hope that Sandra will succeed while admitting they’ll vote for the bonus. They all seem like generally legitimate responses, and Sandra knows that just as we do, but she tries anyway, at least to talk with them–get them to see her side. Because this decision has major repercussions, and it’s not just occurring in a vacuum.

Things are teetering dangerously on the edge of equilibrium for everyone involved because everyone seems to be between a rock and a hard place. And there’s no difference between Marion Cotillard and all these other unknown actors. They’re all bracing themselves for sinking in the same boat.

In a way I found myself comparing this film to the courtroom drama 12 Angry Men because in a similar manner Sandra must go about trying to convince her colleagues to change their minds, and talk them out of their convictions. It’s a difficult task, and this film speaks to the logic and rationale that dictate human decisions. There are individuals all across the board from those who only are looking out for themselves. Is it too hypocritical to call them selfish? It’s hard to know. There are those who want to good, but just cannot, and finally those who stand by Sandra, because they feel it is the right thing to do. The most painful of these interactions occur with those colleagues, who are so conflicted inside. You can see the situation at hand tearing them apart.

Other directors would be terrified of such a film, looking to fill slow moments with some kind of heightened state of action. The Dardennes are content with having their actors rock out to Them’s “Gloria” after a long day. And true, there are many moments of tension and even conflict, but most of this film is about people talking, mirroring the rhythms of real life. The camera is constantly by Sandra’s side, peering at her face, and staying on her hip. Her face has to carry some scenes at times, and it does so wonderfully. Really, this is a film that displays her resilience, grit, and determination to push forward. It had the potential to be either feel-good drama or a tragic story, but it finds a beautiful middle ground. Sandra comes out an undisputed winner, just not in the way that she expected.

4.5/5 Stars

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

fe148-kidwithabikeTo say this is an affecting film would be an understatement, because if you want, to be honest, it is truly heart wrenching and painful to watch. From the beginning moments, this film brought to mind a modern-day hybrid of The 400 Blows with a bit of The Bicycle Thief mixed in. However, comparisons are always unfair, because this film will never be either of those and that is fine.

Cyril (Thomas Doret) is a young red-headed boy whose most prize possession is his bicycle. Now his mother is non-existent (either dead or gone) and his father might as well be. The boy lives at a foster home, but he is an unruly occupant who is prone to flee. The reason being is that Cyril clings to the hope that his father will come and get him or that his father will call him soon. It never happens.
On one such escape attempt, Cyril clings to a lady hairdresser (Cecile de France)  as his caretakers pry him away. Soon she comes to see him and brings his prized bike which had been stolen. Next, she graciously agrees to take him for the weekends after he asks her. However, he is far from a perfect child, often detached, prone to disobey, and can even be violent at times. Things get worse when Cyril goes with Samantha to talk to his father. It’s a happy moment for Cyril until his father reluctantly tells him to his face that he will not take him back. He had initially asked Samantha to do it showing his lack of a spine and self-respect. You cannot much blame Cyril, but he gets worse before he gets better. He spends time with a local thug who ingratiates himself to Cyril with bike repairs, Assassins Creed, and soda. The motive being he needs a new accomplice to take part in a small-time robbery. The worst part is Cyril does it after Samantha specifically tells him not to hang out with the guy.
Without getting into all the gory details Cyril runs into more problems, Samantha gives up her boyfriend, and there are more repercussions for his actions. However, unlike The 400 Blows, this film ends on perhaps a more positive, although altogether odd, note. We can only hope that Cyril and Samantha gel even more because they deserve to be happy, but that is a story for another film. Or maybe it is better not knowing.
I had yet to see anything from the Dardenne Brothers, but I can see why their type of film-making is so popular. It’s “European film” at its best with simple storylines, realistic and humble camerawork that is brought to life by complex characters. There is a lot of raw emotion and character traits that must be parsed through. Motives and actions must always be questioned since we cannot understand everything. We just know they happen. That is a beautiful thing I suppose because these characters are not often two dimensional and that is a service to the audience. These are the type of films people deserve to watch whether they know it or not. If all we see are summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders we would be missing out on a whole different niche of film entirely. Give it a chance and just maybe you’ll like it.
4.5/5 Stars