Marion Cotillard, the star of the Dardenne Brothers’ competition film Two Days, One Night, showed up for the photo call on Tuesday in a mini-dress encrusted with a riot of buttons, a whimsical and rather adorable choice for an actress who, on-screen just a few minutes earlier, had made many of us believe she was a French factory worker in danger of losing her job. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard plays Sandra, an employee at a company that assembles solar panels. She’s recently suffered a breakdown, and her boss has taken a vote among her co-workers: They can either forgo their €1000 bonuses and keep Sandra in her job, or, figuratively speaking, vote her off the island and collect the dough.
They vote for the dough, and the rest of Two Days, One Night is essentially a graceful theorem that proves Jean “In this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons” Renoir right – though it also proves, as Renoir knew, that people don’t have to be enslaved by their reasons. Urged on by her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra spends a weekend visiting each of the co-workers who voted against her – the boss has agreed to a re-vote on Monday, and she hopes she can turn the decision around. Speaking with her colleagues one by one, she makes her case: She has two children; she desperately needs the job; she’s now in better health and able to work. And one by one, her co-workers state their reasons for needing that €1000: One needs to add a patio to her house; another has just split with her husband and moved in with a boyfriend, and needs to buy all new “house stuff”; yet another is struggling to support his own family, secretly working a second job.
I was at first wary of Two Days, One Night because I resist movies that signal their humanism rather than just create the space for it to thrive, and -- with exceptions -- I generally find that the Belgian filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne tends toward the former. (It’s also the problem I have with current festival favorite Winter Sleep, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a beautifully shot film that nevertheless telegraphs its warm feelings toward humanity instead of being a conduit for them.) But the Dardennes won me over this time, for a few reasons: They had the audacity to take a moment that surely seemed headed for dramatic overkill and turn it into a marvelous, if somewhat darkly shaded, joke. (Yes, a joke – in a Dardenne Brothers’ movie!) And they made the choice of casting Cotillard, who appears in at least one film every year at Cannes. Shouldn’t we be sick of her by now? But she has become a master of the stealth surprise, coming up with something new and wonderful pretty much every time she's onscreen.
One of the most annoying things a critic -- or anybody -- can say about an actress is, “She’s too pretty to be a factory worker/hooker/street junkie! I didn’t believe it for a minute!” The assumption is that people who’ve been graced with beauty should never have any cause to suffer, any reason to be stuck in the wrong place or with the wrong person. Another instance of related idiocy is the assumption that an actress who’s willing to ugly herself up for a role is automatically “brave.” Cotillard’s Sandra is beautiful because Cotillard is beautiful; but she also looks believably tired, careworn, anxious. (If I were the movie’s costume designer, I would have put her in something other than a tank top with bra straps peeking out, the universal uniform of the underclass, but that’s just quibbling.) Cotillard is capable of amazing lightness and luminosity, but she may be even better at carrying weight – even though she’s French through and through, she has something of the sad Russian soul about her. (What could she do with Chekhov, I wonder?)
Mid-weekend, Sandra almost gives up her quest, saying to her husband, “I forced the others to pity me.” Damned if she isn’t right. It’s a superb and deeply intuitive line of dialogue. It may even be the Dardennes’ acknowledgment that a person’s suffering can become its own selling point, the strategy of a door-to-door politician (or, for that matter, a filmmaker). When that realization strikes Sandra, Cotillard shows that it hits hard. Everyone has her reasons, and once Sandra is free of hers, the world around her enlarges infinitely.
Cannes, at its best, is a festival of surprises. Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through the festival screenings, I find myself marveling that Cannes 2014 sprang one of its biggest surprises on the very first night of the competition screenings: Unlike many of the movies I’ve seen in the past week and a half, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu hasn’t faded for me.
Timbuktu is set in 2012, just after Muslim extremists have moved into northern Mali en masse, immediately setting and enforcing rules that almost defy comprehension: They ban soccer and the playing of music; women must wear socks and gloves, in addition to all other proper head and body coverings; socializing between men and women that’s considered unwholesome is punishable by severe beating, or worse.
What little I knew about Timbuktu beforehand made me fear it would be one of those movies that sets out to punish westerners with guilt over how easy their lives are. I was wrong, in the way that it’s so important to be wrong now and then. The core drama of Sissako’s film involves a goat and cattle herder (Ibrahim Ahmed), his loyal and astute wife (Toulou Kiki), and the couple’s 12-year-old daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed), as well as an orphan (Mehdi AG Mohamed) who has been taken in by the family. The group makes its home in a tent somewhere in the midst of a whiskery, deserted terrain; all of their neighbors, justifiably terrified by the new order, have left, but this solid little family vows to stay. Tragedy strikes in the form of an incident that is in no way morally justifiable, yet tragically understandable. Sissako (whose previous films include the 2006 Bamako and the 2002 Waiting for Happiness) shows a light touch whether he’s mapping the contours of tragedy or comedy -- and, astonishingly, considering the gravity of the subject matter, Timbuktu embraces both. Even with several screenings left to go, I doubt any film I’ve yet to see will match its gentle, slow-burning intensity, or its austere visual grace.