Two Days, One Night: A Separation (VIDEO ESSAY)

25 08 2015

In honor of today’s Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night,” I have prepared a video essay examining the superb use of composition in the film.  Full text of my narration can be found below – enjoy!  I hope this video is somewhat enlightening.

* As a reminder, the film is available (as of publication) to stream for free with a Netflix subscription.

It’s hard to think that a pair of filmmakers who have won two Palme d’Or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival could be underrated, but the extent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized.  Their latest work, Two Days, One Night – now available through the Criterion Collection – showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.

In today’s cinephile culture, composition is often reduced to mere eye candy and celebrated mostly whenever the merits of a shot loudly blare their meticulous construction, such as in the films of Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, or Wes Anderson.  To be clear, these filmmakers are all great craftsmen who create truly indelible imagery.  But the Dardennes do something with composition in Two Days, One Night of particular note – they employ it to serve as a direct compliment to the tensions present in their narrative.

Perhaps part of the reason this stylistic triumph seems relatively unheralded is that the Dardennes, early adopters of the shaky cam verité style, often used cinematography to enter the subjective headspace of a character.  In Two Days, One Night, the directors’ camera offers a direct commentary from their position outside the story.

That story, boiled down to its essence, is one of binary choices and the journey that an individual must make to move from one side to the other.  The main choice in Two Days, One Night is the decision that 16 workers must make between a thousand euro bonus or saving the job of Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard.  The head of the company allows Sandra one weekend to try and convince her co-workers to change their minds before a revote that Monday.

At the script level, this means a lot of conversations between two people, which typically restricts the visual choices available at a filmmakers’ disposal.  Most films shoot these in some variation of a shot-reverse shot technique, varying close-ups, and the occasional master shot containing both characters.

The Dardennes, however, shoot almost exclusively in that master shot that can capture two figures from a long range.  It is here in these shots, along with some spare editing in post-production, where the directors echo the choice in the narrative.  In their visuals, the Dardennes introduce a visual motif of separation and union to compliment the tough referendum Sandra must pose to her colleagues.

This motif does not appear in every conversation, which is probably for the best as the Dardennes’ subtle aesthetic decision could have become bludgeoning and thus defeating the purpose of their attempt to keep the visuals interesting.  But it appears enough to put aside any doubts that this was some kind of accident or repeated mistake.

So let’s take a look at this in action.

Sandra goes to visit as many colleagues as she can to plead the case for why they should vote for her job.  Whenever she encounters someone hostile to her request, there is usually something in the frame that puts them in a separate space from Sandra.

At her first stop, it’s a piece of wood…

Then, a stack of grocery crates…

A locker…

Later on, it’s different stones on the wall of a row of buildings.  This conversation plays out with the camera roving a little more than usual, beginning on a close up of Sandra, then pivoting to get the same shot of her co-worker, and then moving back to capture them in this two shot.  The two might as well not even be in the same shot – and were it not for the fluidity of the take, I might suspect the sides of the frame were stitched together in post-production.

Later on, when they stop to talk again, she appears against the backdrop of the street while he remains seen against the stone wall.  Call this coincidence all you want, although to have the same pattern pop up twice in the same scene seems to indicate the Dardennes know exactly what they’re doing.

But most often in Two Days, One Night, the visual separation comes from a doorway.  Sandra goes to visit these workers at their homes, and they often prove unwilling to extricate themselves from that place.  They remain comfortably situated in their space of private domesticity and thus allows to remain steeped in the concerns of their own self-interest.

For the people who do make the difficult decision of self-sacrifice for Sandra’s well-being, the visuals play out with a closely correlated complication.

Take, for instance, the case with her colleague Anne.  She decides to come outside and address Sandra directly, which is more than most co-workers were willing to do.  Still, the answer is no, and the corner of the house separates them in the frame.

Later on, Sandra returns to the house, and Anne comes outside to inform her that she’s trying to make it work financially to sacrifice the bonus.  Still, her husband yanks her back inside and yells at Sandra for daring to come and ask this of them.  But now that she has crossed the precipice, it presages this scene.

…where she shows up at Sandra’s house to proudly profess that she will vote to forgo her bonus.

Earlier in the film, she manages a much easier vote switch with Timur, who she catches while coaching soccer practice.  The two talk from opposite sides of a fence, but the Dardennes scarcely let that barrier drift into the shot as they float fluidly between mid-shots of the person talking.  While a separation may have existed between them in the past, the camera suggests the relevancy of that division is next to nothing.

The Dardennes save what might be the masterpiece of camerawork and character blocking in Two Days, One Night for the very last off-site conversation, one between Sandra and Alphonse at a Laundromat.  As he explains his tough choice not to vote for her, she stands in front of the blue-painted wall while he is positioned in front of a red door.

Then, as Alphonse moves around, he has a change of heart and declares his intent to vote for Sandra as he now stands in front of that same blue backdrop with her.

But later, after having a realization that a vote for Sandra might adversely affect his long-term employment prospects, Alphonse decides to change his vote back.  And now, a machine and some bubbles on the wall mark a line that puts them on opposite sides once more.

Fascinatingly, the Dardennes do not only make visual choices that draw separations between Sandra and her co-workers.  In the film’s most tragic moment, where Sandra has to excuse herself from a family lunch to break down crying, the camera catches her facing away from the lens.  We, the audience, are separated from Sandra’s emotions when access to them might make us feel all the more for her.

Yet, through these conversations that dynamically illustrate the power of humanity at both its most selfish and selfless, we cheer on Sandra as she makes the journey towards larger choice that has a far greater bearing on her life – the journey from the stasis of the opening shot, where she finds herself unable to summon the energy to fight for her job…

…to the motion of the final shot, towards whatever uncertain future lies ahead.

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