on the Dardenne brothers’ latest film Two Days, One Night
THE Dardenne brothers — JeanPierre and Luc — have carved a unique niche as darlings of the neorealist cinema tradition. Since La Promesse, their 1996 debut, the Belgians have been widely lauded while remaining unerring in their stylistic and narrative style.
They make their films in and around Seraing, the Belgian town in which they were raised. They cast local actors, shoot chronologically and focus their stories on the travails of the working class.
Those travails appear to have become more pressing as industries wither and wages are squeezed. Their latest film Two Days, One Night — reviewed by David Stratton on Page 14 — gives them great voice.
Even by the Dardennes’ standards, this tale is a sparse one. It tells the story of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a quiet mother and wife who must fight to return to her industrial job after a period of medical leave. Her boss tells her co-workers he can pay her salary only if they forgo their
1000 ($1400) bonuses. She is given the title’s “two days, one night” to convince the 16 members of her team to vote for her reinstatement; the Dardennes, however, are largely non-judgmental about the “correct” action.
The film, like many of the pair’s works — The Son, Rosetta and The Kid with a Bike — strikes the viewer as a potent call to arms, although Jean-Pierre Dardenne says, “There isn’t a hidden agenda.”
The brothers had toyed with the character of Sandra for a decade until the global financial crisis in 2008 made the notion of a worker bargaining with her peers, as opposed to management, a more pressing metaphor. They note some French companies in recent months have subjected employees to such a choice: between self-interest and compassion. The character of Sandra is a stirring response.
“Basically it’s the story of a woman who starts off with all the disadvantages of isolation and so on, and at the end of the film she says, ‘I’m happy to have fought for what I stand for,’ ” Jean-Pierre Dardenne says. The story’s logic, he adds, revolves around the idea of someone being able to look at themselves in the mirror and have a clear conscience.
“It is the story of someone who comes to realise she is special,” he says. “Basically the film is saying, ‘We have to fight for others as well. We have to fight together, and if you’re looking for happiness, then solidarity is one path.’ ”
The film was the favourite to win the Cannes Palme d’Or this year (it didn’t; the brothers previously have won the prize twice) and was awarded the Sydney Film Prize earlier this year.
Its impact is heightened by Cotillard’s scintillating performance. The Academy Award winner for La Vie en Rose is the first non-Belgian actor to work with the brothers.
“First of all, she’s an amazing actor,” 60-yearold Luc Dardenne says.
“Also she accepted all the conditions that were placed upon her as someone on the edge, on the margin of society. There were no special conditions for her: no cars, no make-up, no special costumes or anything like that. She was
Two Days, One Night; in the character and she was one of the group.” He notes Cotillard has the rare combination of being such a presence but who also can become transparent. Certainly, she envelopes herself in the character. It’s a trait necessary in the Dardennes’ films, which are always intimately shot and emotionally unsparing. Technically, the directors put their star through the ringer, subjecting her to more than 50 takes on some scenes and shooting the film in sequence.
The 63-year-old Jean-Pierre Dardenne explains the actors had six weeks of rehearsals before beginning more rehearsals with their technical team.
“What is very important is the actors wanted that themselves because it would mean they get to the core of the character,” he says. “It is true, there were cases of up to 80 takes and simply that was because it was a particularly difficult situation and the characters themselves did not find themselves.”
He argues actors need to move into “almost an automatic reflex, in effect a stimulus response in order to find the right voice and look”.
“There was a lot of it and it was rehearsed, but it was almost like being cut off and living in this world for that very long period until it becomes automatic and you almost give it without realising you’re actually acting it,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne says.
That naturalism extends to the chronological filming, a practice with which the brothers have stuck since their first film.
“That’s our way of telling the story,” says Luc Dardenne. “But it is very important for us to feed from what has already been shot and continue on that path.”
Often they reshoot early scenes because the journey progresses organically, taking them on a different path.
Luc Dardenne adds: “For the actors, it’s the best way to work. They’re very happy to work that way because the actors feed chronologically from the previous sequence and are preparing for the next one, so the fluidity is there in their heads as well as on the screen. It is a coherent way of working and enabling the actors to completely develop the path and help the story along.”
In doing so, the Dardennes have again drawn the best from collaboration to propose a way beyond the modern rise of individualism.
Two Days, One Night is in limited release.
Main picture, Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a mother of two who must fight to keep her job in
left, filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne