Filmmaker Firsts: The Dardenne Brothers and François Ozon

#24: Two Days, One Night (2014) – dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

When we first meet Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the protagonist of the drama Two Days, One Night by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, we see her in profile. It is an opening shot that establishes the primary conflict that her character experiences: she is not living life to the fullest, choosing to sleep rather than be awake, literally not facing the world. It is an unglamorous role, one that shows Cotillard without makeup and photographed with natural light by cinematographer Alain Marcoen, and the script requires Cotillard to cry and shout and indulge in some self-destructive tendencies, often in long takes. It is because of the strength of Cotillard’s acting that allows her to power past some of the story’s weaknesses and clichés, carrying her to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (as announced just a few days ago).

When we learn the central issue in the story – that Sandra must convince her coworkers to forgo a bonus that they are being offered because if they take it, she will be laid off by their boss – we see what a struggle it will be for Sandra, still suffering from depression, to find the courage to face these people and essentially beg them to let her stay. Fabrizio Rongione is good in his role as Sandra’s compassionate husband, Manu, who constantly encourages his wife to get out of bed and fight to keep her job.

The two days of work to find the coworkers and try to convince them is quite a strain on Sandra. It often feels demeaning to her, having to plead with them to forget about the tempting bonus money. She feels tremendous guilt at causing rifts between quarreling couples and family members who cannot decide between Sandra and the bonus. We see the warring states of desperation and defeat in Sandra, put across beautifully by Cotillard even in moments when we can’t see her face. The emotions don’t need to be telegraphed facially; we feel them in Sandra’s every action and even in moments of stillness.

So many of the shots in the film depict the isolation that Sandra feels, a distance both physical (being alone in a room) and emotional (the disconnect between her and other people). I wonder if we actually see Cotillard’s shoulder or the side of her face more often than we see her head-on. For much of the film the Dardennes show the Sandra character in part rather than as a whole person, but as she becomes more confident and finds herself connecting on personal levels with more of her coworkers, we see more of Sandra’s face and even her smile.

Two songs that play on the car radio, Petula Clark’s version of “La nuit n’en finit plus” (a French-language cover of “Needles and Pins”) and the song “Gloria” by Them (a band led by a young Van Morrison) give Sandra positive emotional reactions, including joy and even laughter from the latter song. There is a definite exuberance in the scenes when we witness pop music being a part of Sandra’s life. I’m not going to spoil the ending of the film (which I think could have been written slightly better and not feel so rushed), so I will just ask you to see Two Days, One Night to see how Sandra continues to grow and change as the people around her lift her up out of her anguish and she regains control of her life.

#25: 8 Women (2002) – dir. François Ozon

Taking a 180 to a totally different French-language film, 8 Women is a candy-colored tribute to Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock and Jacques Demy. Ozon’s film combines elements of comedy, musical, melodrama and murder mystery and it stars several generations of French actresses: Firmine Richard, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Danielle Darrieux, Fanny Ardant, Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart (in the order in which you see them in the photo above). It’s great fun seeing these ladies, who range in age from early 20s (Sagnier) to mid-80s (Darrieux), act alongside one another.

For some viewers the musical sequences may seem too weird and random for their tastes. Disbelief has to be suspended in order to the style of 8 Women, musical interludes included. Once you become acclimated to the characters’ habitual breaking out into song (the performances are covers of tunes written by popular artists of the 1960s and 70s like Françoise Hardy and André Popp), the musical numbers feel like they really make sense. Ozon’s aesthetic probably shouldn’t work on paper, but somehow it all comes together on film in the right way. Photographed by Jeanne Lapoirie and featuring costume designs by Pascaline Chavanne, the eight women always look lovely whether they are dancing around the room or trying to unravel the murder plot.

The plot concerns the mysterious murder of a businessman and the attempts made to figure out the identity of the culprit by the eight women who are stuck in the house with the body. Catherine Deneuve is perfectly cool and sophisticated as Gaby, the wife of the deceased. Gaby’s haughty elegance, marked by Deneuve’s trademark iciness, gives way to tenderness when the character is forced to divulge some long-hidden family secrets.

Fanny Ardant plays Pierrette, the victim’s free-spirited sister. Rumor has it she used to be an exotic dancer – quelle horreur! – and although she is the last female character to enter the film, her vibrant presence lights up every scene she is in. Her musical scene, “A Quoi Sert de Vivre Libre,” is an almost-striptease that surprises and amuses her upper crust companions.

My favorite performance in the film belongs to Isabelle Huppert, who plays Gaby’s (Deneuve’s) mousy shrew of a sister, Augustine. Dressed in drab colors with clunky glasses and her hair messily tied up to complete the look, Huppert plays Augustine in a more over-the-top comedic way than anyone else in the film. The character watches the other seven women like a hawk, chastising them for their perceived faults and playing up her own saintly virtues. Because the character is so loud and in-your-face, the revelations about her personal life and feelings are more affecting than the development that happens in other characters. Augustine’s performance of the piano-driven Françoise Hardy ballad “Message personnel” is a transformative moment for a character who had heretofore only sneered, nagged and accused. Isabelle Huppert is one of my favorite French actresses – or maybe one of my favorite actresses of any nationality – because she plays her characters to the hilt, unafraid to embrace personas that are aggressive or unconventional or feminine or vulnerable. All of the heroines (or are they antiheroines?) of 8 Women are worth watching, though, because Ozon gives these characters and actresses the space to do great work and transcend the usual limitations placed on women in movies.

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