Sunday, December 28, 2014

New movie review: Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra in the new Belgian drama Two Days, One Night.

Ethics 101: A train barrels toward a fork in the tracks. If it goes one way, it strikes a busload of children. The other way, it hits one person. You stand at the switch. Which way do you throw it? Variations on this conundrum have littered psychology text books the world over for years, and even the Joker has put Batman to the test on more than one occasion.

Despite the difficulty or impossibility inherent in choosing, we like these kinds of questions because we all know precisely how we would react. In our hearts, we know we are good people who will make the altruistic choice and sacrifice the individual for the good of the many. Add a layer to the question: There is a still a bus of children, but the lone person is your mother – or even yourself. Now, how do we act? The numbers have not changed. The reality has not changed. Maybe we even think our answer has not changed. History says we are wrong.

There is a reason we enjoy these theoretical dilemmas. They allow us to feel good about our own altruism without ever having to learn the truth, as most of us will never face this situation or one similar. Yet, we know the truth. Many people alive today have lived the truth. From the rise of Nazism to the prison camps at Abu Ghraib, history makes it plain: If it is us or them, to hell with them.

In Two Days, One Night, filmmaker siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne stretch out this dilemma to feature length. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a Belgian wife and mother who finds out on a Friday she will lose her job come Monday. Her 16 coworkers have voted to lay her off. In exchange, each will receive a 1,000 Euro bonus (about $1,200). The foreman agrees to hold another vote Monday, which gives Sandra the weekend to convince a majority of her coworkers to give up their bonuses so she may keep her job.

Complications arise in the details, but the idea is simple, and as a premise, it is nearly irresistible. Cotillard is magnificent – dressed down and a little dowdy but still her recognizable movie-star self – as a woman battling clinical depression and crushing self-doubt. With each person who turns her away, she sinks deeper into her malaise but is perked up again every time she shifts a vote over into her column. Forced to beg, Cotillard projects pride and defiance as Sandra goes door to door to plead her case.

Taken together with her performance earlier this year in The Immigrant, Cotillard continues to prove she is more than just a sex symbol. She is not playing the femme fatale of her work with Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) or the eye-candy love interest as in Nine or A Good Year. It seems she prefers – and duly shines in – more confrontational work such as her Oscar-winning turn in La Vie en Rose or 2012’s Rust and Bone. Thankfully, there are filmmakers who want her to do more than look pretty and smile, and Cotillard is hungry enough to chase challenging roles.

Yet, as great as Cotillard is and as intriguing as the premise may be, Two Days, One Night never forces the audience to move beyond the surface pleasures of its narrative. The Dardenne brothers make it too easy to sit in judgment of Sandra’s coworkers. The audience should come away wondering what it would do if posed the question: my bonus or a coworker? Instead, the film lets viewers off the hook when it should be making them squirm.

Most of the Dardennes’ films are low-key dramas about real people in difficult situations, and this may be the epitome of that style. Shot almost entirely with handheld cameras in and around the neighborhoods of the brothers’ Belgian hometown, Two Days, One Night drips with authenticity. Its naturalism helps to establish the characters in a recognizable place and time to which audiences from any part of the world could relate.

The downside of the film’s dogged realism is that the stakes remain low throughout. In treating even major events with a “That’s life” wave of the hand, the Dardennes fail to imbue the proceedings with much urgency, which has the added side effect of making Sandra’s interactions feel repetitive. By her sixth or seventh visit, we pretty much know how this is going to go as many of her coworkers have the same excuse. They need the money – a valid excuse and one we all might share but not particularly illuminating the 10th time we hear it.

Sandra’s coworkers live in richly detailed environments that suggest deep inner lives, but the general circumstances are roughly similar. People have families they need to support, or recent life changes necessitate an influx of cash. Otherwise, they are friends of Sandra’s or people for whom she has done a favor. This creates two camps within the film: those who will vote for Sandra and those who will vote for their bonus. There is little separating the members within each group from one another, which keeps the suspense at a minimum as few people have reason to deviate from their stated intention to vote one way or the other.

Stellar performances and an intriguing premise make the film a must see, but I cannot help but be a little disappointed. The opportunity was there for the Dardennes to confront their audience and force viewers to question the way they think about themselves, their loved ones, and the people orbiting just outside their personal solar systems. How would we react? Is it necessarily wrong to take the bonus? Where do we draw the line between us and them? In leaving these questions unasked, the film settles for being merely good, when it could have been great.

See it? Yes.

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