Review: “Two Days, One Night” (****½)

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Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard star in “Two Days, One Night”

It was just two years ago at the Savannah Film Festival that I was floored by the power and emotional magnetism of both the film “Rust and Bone” and its lead performers, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. I was a fan of Cotillard before that (going back to when I saw her in “La Vie en Rose” at the 2007 Atlanta Film Festival, the first time I attended any film festival) and I’ve become an even bigger Cotillard fan since. Naturally, when I saw that the Dardenne Brothers’ film “Two Days, One Night” was playing at the Savannah Film Festival, I had a new top reason to attend.

I admit to not being familiar with the Dardenne Brothers’ back catalog. I know they have won the Palm D’or twice and were highly buzzed to win it last year with “Two Days, One Night.” I know what films they have made, I just haven’t seen them. I went into this film with “Rust and Bone” on my mind and expectations of another masterful performance from one of the best actors of our time. The only thing both films share is an actress, and those expectations were exceeded beyond measure.

You might have to forgive my excessive enthusiasm for Ms. Cotillard. I can’t help but gush when I speak of her. Her talent is boundless, her beauty is timeless and her taste is always dependable.

Luckily, though, “Two Days, One Night” doesn’t even need to rest on Cotillard’s more than capable shoulders. The Dardenne Brothers create a simplistic, minimalistic, almost documentary-like atmosphere. It feels so natural throughout the whole film, I left the cinema certain that much of it was improvised—an experiment with the actors. Surely, with Academy Award winner Cotillard in front of the camera and a story so free of distraction but so demanding of the audience’s emotional interest, I imagined the directors felt it safe to give the players a situation and let them act it out. Quite the opposite, actually. Despite the film’s success at Cannes, I hadn’t read much about the Dardennes’ technique.

The brothers are so dedicated to the script and so meticulous with how they capture each moment, they would shoot upwards of 80—even 100—takes of some scenes. Cotillard beams when she talks of working with the brothers, despite how grueling the experience might sound. How naturally and completely in sync each emotional and physical beat falls in place is not only a testament to Cotillard’s talent but to the extraordinary direction of the Dardennes. Without knowing the care and dedication they give their projects, the subtlety and lack of romanticism in their storytelling might not let their immense skill shine through. Nonetheless, no scene ever appears over-cooked or under-realized.

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra in “Two Days, One Night.”

Cotillard—Sandra, in the film—is in good company, with a supporting cast that gives such realistic and restrained performances, you might even assume many of them are non-actors. Fabrizio Rongione is excellent as her husband, Manu, but has not received nearly as much acclaim as he should, due to the size of Cotillard hypothetical shadow here. Each new player that we meet is another notch in Sandra’s quest to win over her coworkers as they prepare to vote on whether to keep their annual bonuses or to allow her to return to her job after an extended absence following a mental breakdown. Sandra seems healthy enough to return to work, but certainly not quite stable. Cotillard teeters along the line for much of the film, falling occasionally on either side, depending the circumstances. She has two days and one night to accomplish a seemingly impossible task under the weight of a slowly healing depression and economic uncertainties for her family.

Cotillard’s famous beauty and startlingly blue eyes are no doubt a draw for many of the filmmakers that choose her for a role. The Dardennes, however, hardly ever show her full face in a shot. The camera is usually behind or beside her; her beauty still in tact, but never being the propulsion of a scene.

I saw this film over two months ago, and it has not left my mind since. One of 2014’s best, “Two Days, One Night” is represented at the Academy Awards with a Best Actress nomination for Cotillard. Had I been given a ballot, it would have found its way into several categories.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

“Two Days, One Night” opens in Atlanta on January 30, 2014.

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