There's Now a Frontrunner for Cannes' Top Prize

The Dardenne brothers' Two Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard in a tale of blue-collar struggle, wowed. Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, did not.

It happens every year at Cannes, just past the halfway point: Palme d’Or impatience.

It’s the film-festival equivalent of a kid in the car asking his parents, “Are we there yet?” Here, the question is: have we seen it yet, the film that'll earn the top prize?

According to many furiously tweeting critics after the Monday press screening of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, we had indeed—though others countered that the sober, actor-driven wrestling drama would be too square a choice for a jury chaired by Jane Campion. Later, some speculated that Japanese director Naomi Kawase, one of only two women in competition, was a more likely pick, given the determined lyricism and weighty themes of her Still the Water.

But the most impassioned declarations that the race for world cinema’s most coveted prize was all but over followed Tuesday’s screening of Two Days, One Night, the latest neo-realist parable from Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The brothers have already taken home two richly deserved Palmes, one for Rosetta in 1999 and the other for The Child in 2005. If they snag the award again this year, they will hold the record.

With the visual and narrative economy that makes Dardenne films such a pleasure to watch, no matter how dark their stories, Two Days, One Night turns on Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a factory employee who has one weekend to convince her co-workers to forgo their bonuses so she can keep her job.

Much of the movie consists of Sandra trying to persuade people, many of whom are struggling to get by, to make a sacrifice. What gives the story power beyond its portrait of a fraying European socioeconomic fabric is the protagonist’s ambivalence about fighting for her position. Though she knows she needs the paycheck—she and her supportive husband (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) have two kids—Sandra, we learn, is emerging from a depression, and the symptoms of anxiety (she constantly pops Xanax) and indifference still have a grip on her. But making the rounds and pleading her case, first haltingly and then with increasing urgency, gradually awakens something in her. Two Days, One Night is not just about a woman defending her livelihood; it’s about someone realizing that her life has worth.

If anything, the subtext of Two Days, One Night—Sandra’s recovery—is more stirring than the movie’s tale of social hardship and solidarity. The Dardennes’ films generally revolve around practical dilemmas with ricocheting ethical ramifications, but the central premise of their new work (Sandra’s crusade to save her job) feels tidier than usual. Things aren’t helped by an opening section that leans heavily on expository dialogue and performance in an effort to clue viewers into Sandra’s quandary and fragile mental state.

Cotillard—largely make-up free, hair pulled back and shoulders hunched—at first seems a bit too deliberate, too vivid and intense a performer for the Dardennes’ pared-down naturalism. But she eases into the role beautifully, and Sandra’s final interaction with the co-workers who supported her is a quiet knockout (though after Rust and Bone, The Immigrant, and now this, it would be nice to see Cotillard take a break from suffering and flash that radiant smile).

With its big-name star, steadier-than-usual handheld camerawork and light-filled frames, “Two Days, One Night” may be the most accessible Dardenne fable yet. It’s also, for me, the least morally complex and dramatically involving. Affecting and expertly made as it is, the movie’s tight focus and streamlined quality left me wanting more. The directors’ films are all graced with a purity of vision and a deceptive simplicity that have earned comparisons to Robert Bresson, but I’m not sure this one has as much churning beneath the surface as the others.

I may be in the minority, as many proclaimed Two Days, One Night a career high point for the Dardennes—though its message didn’t seem to move two critics who nearly came to blows after one used his phone during the screening.

The rather laughable prospect of critic-on-critic violence was on the verge of becoming a reality in line for one of the hottest tickets in the Un Certain Regard section, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River. After braving a sea of sharp elbows and clamoring feet to secure a spot in the screening room, I soon wished I hadn’t bothered. A visually elaborate fantasy thriller (with a cast including Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendes, and Saoirse Ronan) that tries hard for Lynchian nightmarishness—but comes closer to a parody of Terry Gilliam—Lost River is an ambitious dud and a chore to sit through.

Another anxiously awaited entry in Un Certain Regard, Pascale Ferran’s Bird People also swung for the fences but came up painfully short. A major misfire from the French director of 2006’s lovely Lady Chatterley adaptation, the movie is a dramatically inert study of two lonely urbanites, one French (Anaïs Demoustier) and one American (Josh Charles, most recently of TV’s The Good Wife), whose lives intersect in an airport hotel outside Paris. Bird People takes a boldly imaginative turn around two-thirds in, and there are roughly 20 inspired minutes that follow. But Ferran, for all the meticulousness of her filmmaking, hasn't thought through how to weave the conceptual twist into her story—or how to make Charles’s character, a businessman undergoing the most banal midlife crisis imaginable, compelling. The film could more aptly have been titled Bored People.

A version of this post appears on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.