Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 16, 2015

Recent Watches: Two Days, One Night (2014)

For the last few years, the Academy has made a habit of sneaking a completely unexpected film into one of the acting categories. This year that honor fell to “Two Days, One Night,” a Belgium film that I had heard absolutely nothing about before hand. The directors, the Dardenne brothers, are apparently well-known and widely acclaimed. The film picked up universally positive reviews and many awards. You’ll have to excuse me but Belgium domestic dramas are not usually in my wheelhouse. This is one of the things I find genuinely exciting about Oscar season: It exposes me to films I otherwise would never seek out.

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a young wife and mother of two. Following an undisclosed mental episode, Sandra was given sick leave from her job, at a factory manufacturing solar panels. While she was away, her boss discovered that the factory got along just fine without her. Now the company has given Sandra’s co-workers a choice: Vote to get rid of her and they will all receive a big bonus. Vote to keep her and… Well, they just get to keep her. Her mental state still strained, Sandra has a weekend to convince her co-workers to vote in her favor. Some are sympathetic to her needs but others really need those bonuses.

As the title suggests, “Two Days, One Night” focuses in on a small frame of time. Sandra desperately needs this job, with a family to support and her husband working at a fast food joint. She has a lot of people to convince in a very short amount of time. Under these constraints, “Two Days, One Night” becomes a thriller of sorts. Some of her co-workers want to help, understanding what it would be like if they were in her situation. Others, meanwhile, are openly hostile. One of her co-workers actually gets so angry that he starts a fight, punching another man to the ground. However, most are somewhere between these two extremes. They don’t have anything personal against her but those bonuses are essential. They are a lot like Sandra in that regard: Barely holding on and in need of whatever money that can get. Sandra’s utterly unsympathetic boss becomes the unlikely villain, a cold bureaucrat only interested in the bottom line. By zeroing in one such a personal situation, the film becomes a thriller about economics and the struggle to stay above water.

At the center of the film is Marion Coltier. Coltier has a gift as an actress, where she can be a glamorous movie star if need be. Stripped of make-up, glitz, or glam, Coltier is capable of looking like a normal human being, a working class person barely holding on. Sandra is a character in a constant state of nervousness. She begins the film in a restless sleep before her cellphone obnoxiously rings. (That ringing reoccurs throughout the film, always reminding us what’s at stake.) She maintains that level of fragility throughout the entire film. Sandra is always popping pills, on the verge of shaking apart. Even after attempting suicide, the character has to jump right back into her quest of getting her job back. The threat of economic instability never leaves her. Coltier’s thin frame has never seemed more weak. It’s a worked-to-the-bone piece of acting, Coltier never over doing it. Though it might have been at the expense of other worthy actresses, she earned her nomination.

I’ve never seen a movie from the Dardenne brothers before but they have an interesting, notable style. Their approach is earthy and low-key. The film features no orchestral music, which is emphasized by the completely silent opening and closing credits. The only featured music comes from radios. While driving down the highway, Sandra’s husband mutes that radio while she chats on the phone. The film has an overall focus on everyday details like that. Coltier chugs water throughout and an extra focus is put on meals. Seems like the characters are eating in every other scene. In order to save on gas, Sandra does a lot of walking too. Considering this is a story all about everyday needs and an all-too-plausible crisis, centering on tiny aspects like this, along with the stark direction, grounds the story in total realism. 

“Two Days, One Night” isn't totally successful. The subplot about the marriage falling apart contributes little to the story. The structure, which essentially boils down to the protagonist talking to a parade of different people, isn’t the most elegant. However, the film is frequently powerful and wormingly unnerving, built around an impressive lead performance. How something this small got nominated, it’s hard to say, yet it’s obvious a notable film from 2014. [7/10]

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