The Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have never made a bad movie. These painstaking writer-directors carefully prepare, rehearse for three weeks before filming, and always deliver something compelling and watchable. And the Cannes juries have responded enthusiastically over the years, rewarding them Palme d’Or awards for their first competition entry “Rosetta” in 1999 and “L’Enfant” in 2005, Best Screenplay for “The Silence of Lorna (2008) and the Grand Prix for “The Kid with the Bike” (2011). This year, the most likely win for “Two Days, One Night” was Best Actress for Marion Cotillard, by far the biggest star to join a Dardennes film (though that prize went to Julianne Moore for “Maps to the Stars”).
The Dardennes first approached Cotillard when they were involved in producing Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” As soon as they met her they knew they wanted to work with her, they said in Cannes. The feeling was mutual. A longtime admirer of the Dardennes, Cotillard signed on first for a story about a rural doctor and then a different script inspired by true stories from the economic crises about a working class woman.
An Oscar-winning actress of extraordinary skill (“La Vie en Rose”) Cotillard manages to fold herself into this everyday woman, a factory manager who is suffering depression and with the support of her husband (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione) rallies herself to fight to get her job back. Her bosses bribe their 16 employees with a 1000 Euro bonus if they are willing to let her go. She has to meet each one and plead for mercy–she can’t afford to lose her job–and some of them, it turns out, aren’t willing to give up their booty.
Over two days we watch this fragile woman summon the strength to plead her cause, which incites fractious arguments between husbands and wives and fathers and sons, as well as some moving support. Who will back her on the secret ballot vote? Who won’t? Will she hold it together long enough to win the day? She’s on a razor-thin edge throughout, constantly ready to retreat into depression and meds. Her husband lovingly holds on to her and pushes her back into the world.
“What made everything possible is it’s something we all did together,” Jean-Pierre Dardennes told Canal Plus. “We discovered it together…She herself becomes someone else, in going out to others with the support of her husband. She becomes a woman who is no longer afraid to express her opinion.”
The Dardennes have always sought the universal in the specific. “These are the people we know,” said Luc. “The solidarity among colleagues is something that is often missing and separates us all from each other, this is a universal message, it’s strong.” It took them a while to find the appropriate ending that rang true.
“I wasn’t surprised at how demanding they are,” Cotillard told Canal Plus. “To achieve these results a lot of work is required. I like more than anything too discover new worlds and ways of discovering this world. With Jean-Pierre and Luc it’s everything I always dreamed of in the relationship of directors and actors, to go into such detail.”
In short, this is a juicy role for any actress and Cotillard runs with it.”I love complex parts,” Cotillard said at the press conference. “I’m moved by people who manage, who cope, despite circumstances and situations and their handicap, for example. I learn a lot about human beings and the human condition when I explore these people’s souls…I just set myself aside and become the other person…I try to go as deep as I can into the character to set aside the work aspect and become that person, give up my own identity, become the person. Once on set if I’ve found all these keys, I don’t have much to do but hand the car keys to the character and that character drives me rather than the opposite.”
Rehearsing is key, the cast said, in costume and on set, before and during the shooting, as the cameras follow them. “We get to know each other very well,” said Cotillard, “and find the right movement of the bodies and the cameras, it’s like a dance a rhythm..We save time on shooting and focus on the acting exclusively. For an actor or actress that’s stupendous. There are no obstacles in the way of what we are portraying and saying. You have the tale that unfolds untrammeled, the images and cameras follow the movement.”
But everyone is working from a script. Nothing is improvised. “I’ve always dreamt of working with those directors who will lead me to the deepest details,” said Cotillard,” the finest details of a character and a film. I’ve always sensed in their films that there would be a huge amount of work involved in order to attain the perfection they achieve in their films.”
“Two Days, One Night” is now in theaters.