It is always exciting when a filmmaker comes out of nowhere with a fully formed and distinctively new way of seeing the world. It adds intrigue, and a certain amount of wonder, when that filmmaker is in his 60s. Actually, Eugène Green was a youthful 50-something when he made his first feature in 2001, but it’s his two most recent pictures that have garnered international exposure: La Sapienza, a 2014 look at a married couple against a backdrop of architectural history, and his latest, The Son of Joseph. Green’s style is formal, almost stilted: Characters pose in front of luscious European settings, reciting their lines with sincerity but little melodrama; when the conversation becomes especially intimate, the people speak directly at the camera. Most movies use naturalism as a way of getting to something real. Green goes the opposite direction, with the same goal.
A quick synopsis of La Sapienza suggests the possibility of an eye-pleasing excursion into la dolce vita, a heaping helping of architecture and Italy served with a nice Chianti. We meet a slightly uneasy middle-aged couple, Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione, the patient husband in Two Days, One Night) and Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman). He’s a well-known architect—brilliant, but over-rational—while she practices some hybrid of sociology and psychology. A chance encounter with teenage siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) leads them to separate for a few days. Goffredo is an architecture student and accompanies Alexandre to Rome, the better to learn about the Baroque splendors of buildings designed by Borromini; Aliénor opts to stay behind in Switzerland and tend to Lavinia, whose dizzy spells are incapacitating.
There is only one situation in Two Days, One Night—no subplots, no vast canvas. But filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With the Bike) need only this one situation to somehow speak of the entire world and what it means to be human in the early 21st century. The situation is this: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been on medical leave from her workplace, owing to depression. She has a low-level job in a manufacturing plant in Belgium. She’s ready to go back to work, but management has decided to cut her position. According to labor laws, her 16 fellow employees can vote to keep her on the job—but the boss has offered them each a 1,000-euro bonus if they agree to lay off Sandra. She has a weekend to plead her case to each co-worker.