Julianne Moore likely will win the best actress Oscar on Feb. 22 for her heartbreaking performance as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”
Marion Cotillard should win instead for her performance in the French-language Belgian film “Two Days, One Night,” even though her character’s journey involves far lower stakes. And even though Cotillard already has an Oscar, for “La Vie En Rose,” and Moore, nominated four times before without winning, is overdue for one.
Each performance is transcendent. It comes down to the style one appreciates most.
Moore’s style is one of containment. Her characters visibly battle their emotional upheaval, with her skill evident in how she reveals that struggle despite the character trying to hide it.
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Moore is American, but her acting is French. In France, the big stars – Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Juliette Binoche – always are just barely keeping it together, in close-up, yet keeping it together nonetheless.
Cotillard, by contrast, is a Frenchwoman with a non-French style. She lays it out there. Big-eyed and raw, she often looks as if she might collapse or blow over. She brings great nuance to her performance, but how her character feels at any given moment never is in question.
She’s emotionally thin-skinned, and thus belongs to that group of actors to whom I respond the most. Current examples are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sally Hawkins, Colin Farrell and my recent obsession, Taraji P. Henson, from the Fox TV show “Empire.”
The ultimate historical example is Debra Winger, who sets the standard for emotional transparency without Method-acting fuss. Cotillard is Winger’s clearest direct stylistic descendent.
“Days” also is a far superior film to “Alice,” and that, too, affects how one considers a lead performance. Written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (“L’Enfant”), the Belgian filmmaking brothers who capture the beats of scruffy, everyday life like no one else, the film stars Cotillard as Sandra, a woman fighting to keep her factory job.
Sandra’s company laid her off after unfairly asking her co-workers to choose between her job and their 1,000-euro bonuses. But Sandra gets a second chance when her colleague and champion (Catherine Salée) reports a foreman’s undue influence on the vote and persuades management to call another.
This happens on a Friday, giving Sandra the weekend to go door to door to appeal to her colleagues before the vote Monday.
As the Dardennes’ hand-held, sometimes shaky cameras follow Sandra onto buses and into various neighborhoods, the only soundtrack is on-location traffic noise. Yet this naturalistic film, and its lead character’s clearly defined, seemingly simple goal, also offers larger insight into the impact of the global financial crisis and the basic rules of human nature.
But it is Cotillard’s emotional accessibility that turns this drama and character study into a quiet thriller.
She shows the tremendous effort it takes for Sandra, a married mother of two who has been on leave from her job because of mental health issues and who was just about to return to work when she was laid off, to summon the courage to knock on doors and sell herself. It takes a lot of nerve to try to convince people that her desire to help feed her family should outweigh the 1,000-euro bonuses her co-workers need for their families.
Because we see that effort, in how Cotillard visibly girds herself at each doorway, we are right there with her, keeping count of who is receptive – Sandra needs a majority of her 16 co-workers to vote for her – and who refuses to even open the door.
Sandra’s obvious discomfort ratchets up the tension. But Cotillard is just as quick to show pleasure and joy, when her co-workers offer unexpected kindness.
The performance contains an overall arc, as Sandra goes from not being able to look her husband (a warm Fabrizio Rangione) in the eye when he first encourages her to see the co-workers in person, to honing her appeal, which is too emotional at the start, to fit the individual co-worker.
For instance, Sandra tells a co-worker whom she discovers moonlighting at a grocery store – obviously, this guy is a workhorse – that she wants to keep her job so she can contribute to the economy, and not just go on the dole.
There are arcs as well in individual scenes. Like one in which Cotillard moves from fear to disbelief and then hope within the course of a phone call in which Sandra is the only one talking.
“Two Days” illustrates how the economic downturn affected businesses’ treatment of employees. Sandra’s company seems to be one that grew leaner and meaner by necessity but then stuck with that approach when the economy improved, because it could get away with it. In the Sandra-vs.-bonus storyline, we also see all the employee positions that became contract work, or just vanished entirely.
It’s not personal, Sandra’s manager tells Sandra semi-apologetically about the bonus-vs.-her equation. Competition from Asia forced the company’s hand.
He only reveals that because she confronts him in person. As “Days” illuminates corporate callousness, it also shows how basic truths of human nature remain regardless of the economy. One of them is that appealing to people in person carries more impact than calling.
Sandra’s husband and colleague tell her this at the start of the film, and they are so right. Faced with Sandra in person, one co-worker feels so guilty about not having voted for her initially he breaks down in tears and promises his support.
But the universality within Sandra’s journey shows most in Cotillard’s performance. Nobody – apart from narcissists, perhaps – welcomes the idea of having to state a case for one’s own worth. At best, such a moment can seem immodest. At worst, demeaning.
Yet this same process empowers Sandra, as we see throughout “Two Days,” in Cotillard’s small smiles and the suddenly straightened set of her shoulders. Forced out of her funk by a mission, Sandra taps inner resources she did not know she had.
In her, the Dardennes and Cotillard have created the most relatable screen heroine in current cinema.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salee.
Directors: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
In French with English subtitles
Rated PG-13 (some mature thematic elements)