I was actually going to write something…

26 08 2015

So I had grand plans to write either my Criterion Top 10 list or a piece about Marion Cotillard today, both of which tied into the Criterion Collection release of “Two Days, One Night” on Tuesday.  (Side note: Amazon.com, you need to get me this disc now, I don’t know why you can’t just put it in my darn mailbox.)

But then, something out of this world happened.  The video essay I posted yesterday popped up on IndieWire, a site that I check multiple times a day.  Needless to say, the excitement kept my mind sidetracked for a while.

Click the picture to be taken to the post itself.

The Playlist - Two Days, One Night video essay

It wasn’t just a link, either.  I hate to toot my own horn, but they gave me a truly flattering write-up as well.

“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 ofJean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s talents still feel insufficiently realized. Their latest work, ‘Two Days, One Night‘ — which is now available through the Criterion Collection— showcases an area of their acumen seldom discussed when praising their work: shot composition.” Marshall Shaffer’s 7-and-a-half-minute video essay begins with that big thesis.

What follows is extremely well edited video that deftly delivers on its premise, showcasing Shaffer’s astute eye for dissecting the latest work by the Dardenne brothers, known for movies like “L’enfant,” “The Son,” and “The Kid with a Bike.”

Watch below for Shaffer’s perspicacious analysis, including what he deems to be “the masterpiece of camera work and character blocking” in the Dardennes’ film.

So you could say I have been floating on cloud nine today.  Sorry if you were craving some juicy content or analysis today.  Sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back and appreciate that all the hard work pays off in some way.

But the reward is not in the recognition.  It’s in the work itself.  I love producing these video essays, and this certainly gives me some motivation to keep churning them out.  But the thrill I got from seeing my name on IndieWire does not measure up to the immense satisfaction of exporting the final cut of the video essay itself, knowing that I have truly wrestled with a film’s meaning and produced something enlightening for the benefit of the discourse around cinema.

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.

REVIEW: Lorna’s Silence

10 08 2015

Lorna's SilenceFor fans of the Dardennes (a group that probably exists only at the very fringes of cinephile circles), “Lorna’s Silence” functions as an interesting bridge between two stages of the brothers’ career.  Their first few movies, which include two Palme D’Or winners in “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant,” feature hardscrabble protagonists forced to learn tough lessons in an uncaring society.  Their latest two films, “The Kid with a Bike” and “Two Days, One Night,” allow some pyrrhic victories for characters willing to fight tooth and nail for them.

“Lorna’s Silence” falls somewhere in between these dueling worldviews, both evincing the past and presaging the future.  Perhaps it feels somewhat wishy-washy as a result, but Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne never hit a false note in their grim portrayal of what happens to Lorna, a fundamentally good-natured woman, when she makes her own life harder by having compassion.

In order to gain Belgian citizenship so she can start a business with her boyfriend, the Albanian emigre Lorna allows herself to become a pawn in a mafia game.  She endures a sham marriage to a junkie to avoid the messiness of divorce proceedings; local boss Fabio (Fabrize Rongione) thinks Lorna can kill off her husband Claudy (Jérémie Renier) by staging an overdose.  Lorna, however, finds herself torn between her personal desires to realize her dreams and the desire to help someone clearly struggling.  The push and pull, as well as how she attempts to create some kind of balance between the two opposing forces, proves brutally compelling to watch unfold.

The film may come across as slight in comparison to the brothers’ other work, but the impact of “Lorna’s Silence” is still hard to shrug off.  If this is the toll of trying to remain upright in a world that rewards self-service, then why would anyone ever want to do the charitable thing?  The Dardennes confront some of the tough dilemmas that face the working-class, daring us to feel the pain with their beleaguered, woebegone protagonists.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Two Days, One Night

1 10 2014

Two Days One NightTelluride Film Festival

In 1999, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrived on the world stage of cinema in a big way with “Rosetta,” a film that won them the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as global renown.  That story, which they both wrote and directed, followed its eponymous 17-year-old protagonist as she battles for self-survival in an unfeeling Belgian capitalist system.  In spite of all the setbacks she faces, however, Rosetta always summons the strength from within to get back on her feet and scrounge around again for a job.

Two Days, One Night” arrives from the brothers 15 years later, who once again take an out-of-work female as their subject.  Marion Cotillard stars in the film as Sandra, a struggling factory worker who learns she has one weekend to convince 16 coworkers to relinquish a bonus in order for her to stay on the company’s payroll.  Such a daunting task would seemingly shock anyone out of lethargy and into tenacious survival mode.

Yet when the Dardennes first introduce Sandra, she lies motionless on her side and is content to simply let an important phone call ring until it gets forwarded to voicemail.  Throughout the film, Sandra appears to believe that going to fight for her job is a futile waste of her time and energy.  Most of the push to continue the journey, in fact, comes from her rather saintly husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).

Much of Sandra’s lack of confidence is explainable by her personal struggles with depression (that might be a generalized description of the specific condition afflicting her, which seemed to resemble bipolar disorder).  To focus solely on the personal, however, diminishes a whole world of social commentary in “Two Days, One Night.”  This is the second time that the Dardennes have placed the imminent possibility of joblessness in front of their central character, and the response that follows has shifted from powerful pugnacity to alarming apathy.

Read the rest of this entry »

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 6, 2014)

6 06 2014

Kid with a BikeIn 2012 and 2013, whatever time I had that wasn’t devoted to studying for finals in late April and early May was devoted to cramming in some important movie watching.  Around mid-April, the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival is announced, and both years promised new films for prominent directors whose filmographies I had largely (and shamefully) neglected.

This year, I sadly did not get the chance to go back to Cannes, instead relegated to the sidelines to live vicariously through The Hollywood Reporter and IndieWire’s reporting.  (I’m not asking you to feel bad for me; I’m lucky enough to have gone in the first place!)  That did not stop me, however, from keeping up my habit of catching up on some filmmakers walking the Croisette with new works.

It led me to discover the raw power and magic of the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, albeit from the comfort of their own couch.  I certainly forward to seeing their latest film, “Two Days, One Night,” after being blown away by their prior film “The Kid with a Bike.”  Thought it was the runner-up at 2011 Cannes to “The Tree of Life,” it’s still first-class enough to be called my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The raw naturalism of the Dardennes really snuck up on me while watching “The Kid with a Bike,” and by the end, my heart beat in tune with the pulse of the film.  Their filmmaking technique seems to be in the vein of alienation, stripping the frame of aesthetic beauty so we can focus on the political realities within it.  The Dardennes focus their narrative on the more marginalized of Belgium whose stories are not usually told; here, that’s Cyril, the titular child who has been brought up through the foster care system.

As Cyril rebels against authority, following his own impulsive whims and defiantly straining the patience of those who care for him, the film recalls a harder-edged “The 400 Blows.”  Yet it slowly evolves before our eyes into something powerfully emotional and deeply felt on a guttural level.  The Dardennes’ periodic and well-timed use of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (also employed in the epilogue of “The King’s Speech“) certainly helps amplify some key moments, though it alone is not responsible for the powerful impact of the film.

Though Cyril is initially thorny and tough to sympathize with, the Dardennes’ plot brilliantly unfolds with a double whammy of both exposing his vulnerability and putting him into more dangerous situations.  As we begin to see how little love he receives from a deadbeat biological father and how little regard he is held in by an uncaring society, we rush in to fill the void of affection.

We become inspired to adopt a position similar to Cecil de France’s Samantha, the adoptive foster mother of Cyril.  She’s not perfectly caring and patient, to be sure, because Cyril doesn’t always make it easy. On the other hand, she does try to instill in him the sense of self-worth that no one else gave him.  “The Kid with a Bike” doesn’t issue an explicit call for us to help the poor in spirit, but it almost doesn’t need to do so.  The film’s stirring conclusion ought to move anyone with a heart to show more compassion for everyone.