Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mood Disorder: Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night—the latest offering from the Dardenne brothers of Belgium—feels about as long as that, despite clocking in at a little over ninety minutes. The filmmakers have made realism their trademark approach, seeking to give voice to contemporary society's flotsam and shed light on their plight. In this attempt, they mean to channel the neo-realism of De Sica and his fellow Italians. His Umberto D. follows one elderly man as he loses both his Rome apartment and his pride, forced to beg on the streets for rent money. The Dardennes's film also tells a basic story, that of one Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a French wife and mother of two who's being forced from her job at a small company. But De Sica suffuses his film with a tone and technique that flushes out fellow feeling for the titular character. He was a humanist: Umberto Ferrari's character is fully formed and dignity affirmed in our eyes, even as he's debased in the eyes of others. The Dardennes brothers miss this streak. Two Days, One Night lacks a compelling central character, which leaves its simple narrative and conflict moribund.

That conflict and narrative are simple. Sandra learns one morning that her boss, Dumont, has placed the unionized workers in a noxious dilemma: choose between letting Sandra retain employment or receiving a year-end bonus for themselves. The ballot looms in two days, giving the ostracized woman just that amount of time to visit her fellow employees and convince them to swing their vote in her favor. But Sandra suffers from a curiously fragile constitution, which we come to find out is clinical depression. Devastating her self-esteem, the mood disorder saps her of the will to fight for her cause; she can barely surmount her inertia and fear of confronting people as she goes door to door. Her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), helps support the family as a cook and offers greater emotional support to his spouse. With patience and stability, he bucks up her courage and assuages her anxiety as he chauffeurs her from one residence to another.

The Dardenne Brothers (photo by Christine Plenus)
As to that anxiety, it's so acute in Sandra as to render her character close to being hysterical. The woman is lachrymose, screaming herself awake and giving to fainting in the face of emotional distress. Depression is a crippling condition, but the way the Dardennes brothers handle it pushes Sandra nearly into hysteria. Marion Cotillard is an actress of astonishing gifts who turned it perhaps the best leading performance by a female last year, in The Immigrant. Her gift for making spontaneous emotional expression pure and captivating keeps her acting here from turning maudlin—but only barely. The Dardenne brothers take their place among the few directors who've squandered her talents like this, Christopher Nolan being the only other I've encountered. Yet you can't help but feel embarrassment for her after so many onscreen breakdowns. That's definitely not the attitude De Sica and friends elicit for their characters.

The problem is that her performance has so little to work off. After the initial setup, the film's narrative structures itself around the series of encounters she has with her coworkers. Each is pedestrian and flat, lacking dramatic tension and featuring colorless dialogue. Good screenwriters use dramatic conflicts as opportunities for revelations of character. But the brothers Dardenne, who also wrote the film, don't bother with any of that. Instead, we get bland statements about why each employee can or cannot vote in Sandra's favor. One man has a daughter to support while his wife's on welfare. Another, whom she confronts on a soccer field, changes his mind when face to face with her. He starts sobbing inconsolably as he recalls how she once saved his job—apparently, everyone in this company suffers from hyperactive tear ducts. A third explodes in rage and coldcocks his partner when he starts coming around to Sandra's viewpoint. The emotions in these exchanges are broad and the stakes never raise, so that it becomes at once melodramatic and listless.

In fact, nothing of interest occurs in this movie, visually or thematically. The Dardenne brothers may be going for realism, but realism means mimicking reality's style, not its banality. The picture offers nothing in the way of overriding concepts or motifs. At one point, Sandra rides in a car with her husband and a friend while Van Morrison's “Gloria” echoes. Most directors would use a song in that situation as a way to comment on the action or characters. But the Dardenne brothers don't—they hover in a long take as Sandra sings along with the others, but there's no meaning attached to the moment. We've no idea what it's supposed to signify, because it signifies nothing except that the woman is smiling for a change. I'm afraid that's rather trite. The style in the film is so straight forward as to bore; the filmmakers never use the camera to play with perspective or tone. De Sica may have told a simple story, but he employed the elements of cinema to wring dramatic power out of the smallest of moments, such as when Umberto D. opens his palm to beg on the street, only to snap it back out of wounded pride. Much of Two Days, One Night feels like the final thesis project of an undergraduate filmmaking major, it's that uncomplicated.

And in the end, its the dramatic climaxes fall flat. We feel little for Sandra when she swallows a bottle of Xanax, or for when the final vote is tallied. The Dardenne brothers want to ennoble her the way De Sica does his hero, but unfortunately they do it by rigging the script in such a way that we have no choice but to divide the world into easy categories of heroes and villains. What choice do we have when we're told that the company owner discovered that his employee were just as productive when Sandra took medical leave, if only he worked them overtime? For that matter, the basic problem underlying the film feels contrived, like something out of a soap opera. Would a small business owner really make his employees choose between their self-interest and turning on one of their own? I'm no fan of capitalism, but the dice here seem loaded—you have to do a more convincing job of showing the ills of corporate management. The film gives Dumont a chance to redeem himself, but it turns out to be a gotcha moment, just another one-dimensional opportunity for us to feel superior to him and approving of Sandra. He puts the same choice to her that he gave his workers. And she nobly rises above it, falling on the sword and patting us on the back in the process. I half expected her to cry.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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