"Two Days, One Night," Belgium's foreign-language Oscar entry, boasts the star power of Marion Cotillard under the direction of naturalistic masters the Dardenne brothers.
Like most of the Dardennes' work, "Two Days" is about the working class — in this case, focusing on Sandra, a woman wrestling both severe depression and an attempt by the management at her company to lay her off by offering her co-workers a bonus if they vote her out. Upon learning an early vote went against her, Sandra talks her boss into holding a second one and uses the weekend to visit and persuade her co-workers to let her keep her job.
"It's not a very realistic film. In real life, I think Sandra would have lost her employment immediately and there wouldn't have been this whole story built around her going to see different people, trying to change their minds," says an energetic Luc Dardennes, at 60, the younger brother by three years.
"Today, people are in solidarity for great humanitarian missions but not for their neighbor. When one is implicated in the situation, it gets harder."
That can also apply to some actors working for the demanding Dardennes. The directors rehearse extensively — five weeks on location for this film — and shoot many, many takes. The brothers say some actors have come to them with the "Do with me what you will" attitude, only to swim for shore early in the process. That was not the case with Oscar winner Cotillard, they say, despite her international stardom.
"That's what the rehearsal process is for, to get rid of that whole sort of actress image and strip her down to the bare essentials. So the audience members see Sandra and not Marion Cotillard," says Jean-Pierre, while praising the actress' work ethic and lack of vanity.
"That was the initial deal we made with her; we wanted to see if we could integrate her into our family, and she was interested in seeing if she could gain something."
Cotillard smiles and says, "It was one of my greatest experiences, if not the greatest experience, I've had on set with directors. It was really … osmosis between them and I. I really had to find how to connect 100% my rhythm with their rhythm. They were the clock and I was the hand.
The brothers would shoot long, unbroken sequences and were sticklers about the timing of each moment, even emotional ones. Thus they could shoot up to "80, 90, 100 takes because they really wanted to have the rhythm they had in mind," says Cotillard.
But the rhythm was both a technical and an emotional beat, requiring specific timing for Sandra to suddenly be overcome by dark waves of despair while hitting exact markers.
"That's not easy," says the actress with a gentle laugh. "It's really like people who build clocks, you have to be super, super precise."
But these mechanisms were doomed to failure if the central performance didn't convince of its mighty internal struggle.
"The thing we saw about Marion right away, and it's written on her face, is that there's something extremely vulnerable about her," says Luc. "There's also a tremendous sort of vitality and aliveness, and we needed both. There's something else we saw in her immediately, and that's the melancholy. It's readable in her eyes."
Cotillard says, "I'm lucky that I've never experienced that kind of depression, although I came close once in my life. I had no taste for anything. I had everything to be happy about, and I was empty. And this emptiness, I felt, helped me to create this character.
"I was lucky not to go deep into depression, but I was also lucky to experience it because everything you experience in your life, even the worst things, is going to teach you something about yourself, about human beings, about the world, about life.
"So, of course, I used it."