“It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized. Their latest work, ‘Two Days, One Night‘ — which is now available through the Criterion Collection— showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.” Marshall Shaffer’s 7-and-a-half-minute video essay begins with that big thesis.
What follows is extremely well edited video that deftly delivers on its premise, showcasing Shaffer’s astute eye for dissecting the latest work by the Dardenne brothers, known for movies like “L’enfant,” “The Son,” and “The Kid with a Bike.”
Just a heads up: this video essay lays out the broad strokes of the plot of “Two Days, One Night” and gets into specifics about scenes, even hinting at the film’s conclusion. For that, we’re going to slap a SPOILER WARNING on the video and this write-up from here on out.
For those who haven’t yet seen the film, Shaffer sets it up quickly and efficiently. “Two Days, One Night” stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a working mother whose coworkers elect to receive substantial bonuses at the cost of her job. Sandra’s employer agrees to keep her on staff, but only if she can convince her colleagues to forego their extra pay.
By its very nature “Two Days, One night” is dialogue heavy. Sandra’s livelihood depends entirely upon her ability to verbally and individually convince multiple people to turn down their one thousand Euro bonuses. The premise of the film requires the Dardennes to film myriad one-on-one conversations, which are typically accomplished using “some variation of the shot, reverse shot technique.” Shaffer points out that “the Dardennes, however, shoot almost exclusively in that master shot, which can capture two figures at a long range.” This atypical technique for conversations enables the writer-directors to craft some very powerful shots, which serve to illustrate the film’s themes of separation and removal.
Shaffer observes, “Whenever [Sandra] encounters someone who is hostile to her request, there is often something in the frame that puts them in a separate space from Sandra.” These objects range from a piece of wood (bisecting the frame) to a stack of grocery crates (which appear behind Sandra, but not behind the opposing coworker she’s having a dialogue with) to a wall (it is stone behind Sandra and brick behind her colleague). Most often, though, a doorway separates Sandra and whomever she speaks with.
At other times, when Sandra’s colleagues are receptive to her plea, the Dardennes still employ a physical barrier (such as a low fence), but they barely keep it in the frame. In these instances, the literal barrier practically disappears, as the metaphorical wall between Sandra and her coworker comes down.
Watch below for Shaffer’s perspicacious analysis, including what he deems to be “the masterpiece of camera work and character blocking” in the Dardennes’ film. Plus check out an interview with Marion Cotillard from the Criterion Collection bonus features on the DVD/Blu-ray edition.