It’s hard to find words enough to praise Two Days, One Night, the latest film from the extraordinary Dardenne brothers of Belgium. They have won two Palme d’Ors at Cannes, numerous other important awards, and the wide respect of the entire film community. They only lack an Oscar, which may be to their credit. They were contenders in the Academy Awards this year because for the first time they used an international star, Marion Cotillard, who “disappeared into” her utterly unglamorous role. (She was nominated as best actress but lost to Julianne Moore in Still Alice, a film about Alzheimer’s that raises a lot of questions which I may comment on at a future date.)
I have written about the Dardennes before on this blog (see last paragraph):
Anyone interested in Christian faith will respond to the brothers’ work. Secular people would probably not notice the way that they subtly, almost invisibly, weave Christian themes into their scripts (they write, produce, and direct all their films). There is one tiny moment toward the end of Two Days that overtly introduces God, but the moment vanishes instantly–to be reintroduced anonymously at the very end in one of the most unexpected twists of plot that I can remember. Well, you could hardly call it a twist of plot, because as in all their films everything is so subtle. Nothing calls attention to itself. It is there to figure out, however, for those who have eyes to see.
The Dardennes’ technique involves the use of hand-held cameras and available light. Because of their understated and modest style of directing, it is all the more striking that at least four of their movies (I have seen all seven of their major films) have heart-in-throat pacing. There are many points when you wonder how it can all possibly work out in any believable way. This suspense is particularly notable because they use virtually no music or sound track at all, and especially not to create mood, increase tension, or signal to the audience what might be coming. The plot of Two Days has a superficial resemblance to Twelve Angry Men, with the main character, Sandra, charged with changing the minds and votes of (in the case of Two Days) sixteen people from her workplace, but even when that famous jury movie was new, long ago, it did not have anywhere near the prolonged suspense of Two Days.
There are some admirable little touches. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is meeting the sixteen people, one after another in sequence, as Sandra visits each one in their various humble dwellings; yet the one that hurts Sandra most deeply is never seen in any identifiable way. The others, in all their variety of character, ethnicity, and circumstances, elicit your understanding if not admiration. The subject of economic hardship is always to the fore. The Dardennes make you care about their very ordinary blue-collar characters, about their struggles, and about what happens to them. In them we see what we share in common.
It is common to hear of “redemptive themes” in films. It can be an overused concept, frequently verging on sentimentality. There is no sentimentality in the Dardenne brothers’ work. The characters are too complex for that. The brothers do not ask for the audience’s sympathy. They just show everyday working-class people, in all their ordinariness, cussedness, and frailty. All of their movies are shot in public housing and featureless workplaces in dreary industrial towns with no cinematic appeal whatsoever. Yet without question the hint of redemption is there, and the suggestion of Providence and meaning in even the most humdrum lives. It is an honor and a privilege to share in the Dardennes’ respect for their characters and their hardscrabble lives, where occasionally an unforgettable touch of humanity breaks through.