Belgian sibling filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are known for their naturalistic dramas about lower characters struggling to get by. Relying on handheld camerawork and highly credible performances, the Dardennes explore tense scenarios with a remarkable track record. Among the few filmmakers to win the coveted Palme d’Or twice — for “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant” — their other credits include the similarly acclaimed “Le Fils” and “Lorna’s Silence.” In 2011, they won the directing prize at Cannes for “The Kid With a Bike.”
This year, the duo premiered “Two Days, One Night” at the festival with the usual positive response, amplified this time by the rare situation in which the brothers worked with an international star: The movie features Marion Cotillard as Marion, a wife and mother in danger of losing her gig at a solar factory unless she can convince her co-workers to take pay cuts over the course of a long, strenuous weekend. Venturing from house to house with her supportive husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra engages in a frantic race to save her profession — as well as the stability of her family life. While the setting is typical for the Dardennes, it’s also a powerful testament to the precision of their technique: Cotillard buries herself in the unique uncertainties of the Dardennes’ world, and even as their approach remains familiar, the plot unfolds with a constant surprises.
Following a round of well-received screenings at the New York Film Festival, the Dardennes sat down with Indiewire to discuss the relationship between their other films and this new one, which was recently selected as Belgium’s submission in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. IFC Films will open “Two Days, One Night” in New York and L.A. on December 24th followed by a nationwide expansion.
You have such a particular style to your films. How do feel about expectations that audiences bring to your work?
Luc: When we’re making a movie, we’re always thinking of the spectator, his look, his eyes on the movie. Our way of directing is always linked to the spectator. For instance, in this movie, Sandra says, “Put yourself in my place.” The other character says, “Put yourself in my place.” We frame the shots so that the audience is constantly in the shoes of the person who’s saying “Put yourself in my place.” We don’t put the audience in front of a spectacle. We want him inside the movie.
Jean-Pierre: This isn’t rocket science. It isn’t a new idea. [laughs]
You usually work with unknown actors. How does a familiar face like Marion Cotillard impact your method?
Luc: That was taken care of during the rehearsal process, which lasted six weeks. Each of the actors, including Marion, were asked to strip themselves more and more so they can be raw enough for the character to emerge. None of them are “performing.” That’s the challenge of our rehearsal process — to create that climate where the actors are laid bare so the characters can emerge.
Jean-Pierre: Especially with Marion, the challenge was to have her change her physicality, to change herself in terms of the other movies she’s been in, so that she became banal like the other characters. We had to bring her to a level where she could be banal.
Luc: From the beginning, she said to us, “Do with me whatever you want. No makeup. We’ll look at the costumes together.” We didn’t give her any special treatment. We did the same thing with the lighting that we did with the other actors. We didn’t do it so that there were shadows cast over anyone, but we never sat there and said, “Oh, there’s light reflecting on her face, let’s fix that, or whatever.” We treated her and filmed her just like the others.
She’s the agent of suspense in the film. Tell me more about how you create that feel. The plot could be easily rendered as simple melodrama, but the intensity of each scene elevates it.
Jean-Pierre: From the get-go, we were afraid of something — the repetitive element of the scenes. We were afraid that would make it boring. When we understood that that repetition was actually the motor of the film, that it would create the suspense, that’s when things started to roll. Then we realized that the meetings she had with various other characters — that created the suspense. It wasn’t just when she was waiting to ring the buzzer. It was the complete encounter with each character that created the suspense. One of the major questions we had was, “Who’s going to open the door?” If she gets a negative reaction, will that keep her from seeing others? Manu [her husband] is the goalkeeper who keeps tabs on whether she can keep going.
In some ways, the premise calls to mind “High Noon.” Were you thinking of any particular movies when conceiving of this one?
Luc: We were also thinking about Sidney Lumet’s “Twelve Angry Men,” because it’s a process of going to see people to try and change their minds. In our film, you could say that Marion is a little bit like Grace Kelly in “High Noon.” We didn’t really think about it while writing it, but it’s a good comparison.
Jean-Pierre: We are very influenced by Maurice Pialat, Kieslowski, Rosselini. We do like those filmmakers and watch their movies repeatedly.
Your use of camera movement is so distinctive. How much do you think about that during the writing process?
Jean-Pierre: The screenplay doesn’t necessarily describe camera movement, but it does describe the rhythm of each scene.
Luc: But we do try it somewhat. I’ll call up my brother and say, “In terms of the sequence of the shots, I’m not sure this will work quite well,” so there is a certain amount of discussion related to the camera work, but it’s really related to the sequential shots since that’s the way we shoot. Can we do it or not? Or are we going to cut to make it sequential? Since here we wanted all of Sandra’s meetings with her co-workers to be sequential, we talked about it.
How do you communicate when something doesn’t go the way you planned?
Luc: We spend an enormous amount of time picking the sets and rehearsing with the actors. When we’re on the eve of the shoot, there’s been a very lengthy process, first with the writing of the screenplay and then with the rehearsal process. Some scenes have been reworked and changed but it’s really during the rehearsal process where we see what works and what doesn’t. But sometimes when we’re ready to shoot, we realize the way we rehearsed it doesn’t work. When the process is completed, most often what happens is that we take stuff out and simplify it. We knock out dialogue, take out certain camera movements…
These are all technical aspects of your filmmaking. With your previous film “The Kid with a Bike” and this one, it seems as though you’ve turned toward more uplifting stories — at least compared to your other films.
Luc: Sure. She’s happy because she’s been courageous on a moral level.
Jean-Pierre: The most important thing is that she’s able to say no to the big boss.
But is it a coincidence that your last two films are both upbeat?
Luc: Yes, we’ve gotten older! [laughs] Death is closer! No, I don’t know why that is. The films were never really despairing — we think that despair is too conformist. But the characters were in more difficult situations, that’s true. In “The Silence of Lorna” and some of the other movies, the characters were more trapped.
Your previous films have also dealt with lower class struggles, but this one seems to have more pointed message about the nature of those struggles. Can you elaborate?
Luc: It’s true. If you take the character of “Rosetta,” she’s in a survival mode. She says outright that she’s ready to kill to survive. Sandra’s quite different — she’s looking for solidarity in order to survive. She doesn’t say, “You’re a good guy, you’re a bad guy.” She doesn’t judge. She says “1,000 euros is a lot of money and I understand why you want it.” She’s never going to do anything under-handed to get them to change their minds, because she sympathizes with them. She’ll never try to twist the facts to achieve a certain result. She’s able to sublimate her interests for the greater cause.
What’s your relationship to this situation? Do you know anyone who has endured something similar to it?
Jean-Luc: Personally, I don’t know anyone who’s been in Sandra’s situation. Of course I know people who have lost their jobs. But we do know people who were asked to take salary cuts in order to allow other employees to stay, because it’s kind of becoming a common management technique. We’ve spoken to people who work for industries that shut down, and they said, “Before it shut down, we made every effort to help it keep going. We were asked to take cuts, not have this or that, and it still shut down.”
Luc: When the film came out, there was an outcry from industries that said it wasn’t credible, it didn’t happen. Belgian television did a reported feature on three companies where in each there was an employee that had been put in a situation such as Sandra’s. It was documented.
Your film is being submitted, once again, for Oscar consideration. Does that sort of possibility matter to you these days?
Luc: Yes, I think it would be nice for us and the movie. I think it has something to say, but it’s up to the Academy.
Are there other filmmakers in Belgium who could benefit from the same level of exposure you two receive?
Luc: Belgium is a small country! There are 15 or 20 filmmakers. I’m speaking about the ones who do films that are recognized. There’s no cinema industry. We always have to work with France or other countries. But it’s better now than it was before, because of the political and cultural politics of the state have improved.