Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner) Talks Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night

The latest pared-down picture from the sixtysomething Belgian brothers is realism at its very best.

This is a terrible Christmas movie.

We’re at that point in December when every critics’ group across the country thinks it necessary to publicize their choices for the best films and performances of the year. This mass dumping of useless and egoistic information (to which I am not immune, of course, and you can look out for my Top 10 of the year on Tumblr later) is usually only ever taken into serious consideration by those bloggers and journalists faced with the joyless task of finding a narrative in “The Oscar Race.” Without fail, a few films — coincidentally the ones with the largest awards-campaign funding — end up dominating every list from Boston to San Francisco and all cities in between. This year’s early narrative has taken the form of a heavyweight bout between two indies — Boyhood vs. Birdman, each a towering achievement of cinematic ambition. While the narrative will frame Birdman as an accomplishment in technique — swirling camera work, seamless editing and virtuoso acting to the beat of a jazzy rhythm — Boyhood will be heralded as ambition via simplicity. Life lived as it is, with no bells or whistles.

I bring all this up only because it’s easy to go along with narratives like these if they appear before you frequently enough, but it takes a movie like Two Days, One Night to make you truly realize how complicated and wonderful simplicity is. In fact, there may be nothing harder to capture than the complexity of simple. I went into Two Days, One Night knowing nothing about the plot and without having seen a single frame of footage, which is how I prefer to come to films I’m inherently interested in. In this case, that inherent interest came from the men behind the camera — Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. These two sexagenarian Belgian brothers are goddamn patron saints of contemporary cinema as far as I’m concerned and while they’ll never end up in narrative pieces about the Oscar race, they are two of the only eight people to win the Palme d’Or twice. But really, who cares? (I’m sorry to have written this much about awards.)

I once read an anecdote about a young François Truffaut and other future members of the French New Wave being so frustrated by Hollywood and big French studio films’ predictability that they enacted a policy whereby they would go to a film and as soon as they knew what it was about, they would leave. Ten minutes into the screening of Two Days, One Night, the plot had seemingly identified itself and I silently thought, “I hope this isn’t what the whole movie is going to be.” In the end, it is exactly what the whole movie ends up being, and it’s incredible. Would Truffaut have left at the moment I first expressed apprehension? I doubt it, simply because, if anything, I was certain that the whole movie couldn’t possibly be about what it seemed like it was going to be about. And of course, deep down it really isn’t. The true skill of the Dardennes is how they can take the thinnest of ideas or interactions and find the complicated beauty underneath. Here, in seemingly repetitive scenes, they manage to do that over and over again.

Marion Cotillard is the star of the movie. About her I’ll simply say that, between this and The Immigrant, she has appeared in two stone-cold masterpieces in successive years and is also the very best thing about both, so let’s all try to be a little sensitive when we’re talking to every other actress in the world, because they’re not Marion Cotillard and they’re never going to be Marion Cotillard. The way she radiates dignity through shame, time and time again in this film is superhuman. Incidentally, I think dignity and shame are the two hardest qualities to capture on film, and she is doing both at the same time. Yet even with her colossal performance at the center, all of the actors and non-actors in the supporting cast more than hold their own, creating a fully believable and richly textured community. I never felt less than 100-percent positive that these people all worked in the same factory together.

I’m tempted to get back to my original point here, and say that what I admire most about Richard Linklater is how he consistently challenges himself to think outside of the box as a narrative filmmaker, and the way he manages to be successful in that arena is by narrowing his scope rather than widening it. It’s inspirational. But based on what actually happens on screen, Boyhood ultimately doesn’t do much for me. It doesn’t capture dignity or shame or regret or depression or anything in the pure, uncompromising way that the Dardennes do. But why am I even comparing Boyhood and Two Days, One Night in the first place? How is that fair? (I was also going to write a bit about how Two Days, One Night is kind of like 12 Angry Men, but what good is that going to accomplish?) I bet the Dardennes could find a way to turn even my shameful attempts at writing this review into a beautiful film.

The other night my friend Lydia Hyslop, who acts in all of Zach Clark’s films, was trying to recall which one of their collaborations had been given a particularly bad Netflix review that she thought was funny. We figured out it was White Reindeer when she remembered the line, “This is a terrible Christmas movie.” But I immediately thought it would be even funnier if someone threw that observation randomly into their review of one of Zach’s other movies, Vacation! or Modern Love is Automatic. Rear Window is a terrible Christmas movie. Movies are often derided for not being things they were never meant to be and it can be the most helpless, infuriating thing for a filmmaker. Here, in an attempt to not spoil too much about one film, I threw another under the bus. I actually like Boyhood pretty well. I don’t like Birdman, though. And I love Two Days, One Night.

Chad Hartigan was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking. In 2008, he wrote and directed his first feature, Luke and Brie are on a First Date, which premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival and was remade for Latin American audiences in 2013 as Luna en Leo. His second feature, This is Martin Bonner, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best of NEXT and went on to also win the John Cassavetes Award at the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards.