poster_100794With their new film, Two Days, One Night, the sibling directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have stayed true to their spare but powerful aesthetic, using handheld camera, extended scenes often featuring simple framing in two-shots and straight-forward, understated smash cuts to move the story along. In fact, we could start this review by the Belgian brothers just like the last review we published here about their previous film (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). However, there are a few subtle changes worth noting in this new film. The Dardennes use no extra-diegetic music this time, and for the first time, they are working with an international star: Marion Cotillard.

The actress delivers a marvelous performance that only bolsters the focused gaze of the Dardennes. Wearing minimal if not any makeup, Cotillard delivers a heart-breaking performance as Sandra, a factory worker in Seraing, an industrial town of Liège in Belgium, who, upon her return to work after a medical leave due to depression, faces dismissal from her job. The boss has found a way to streamline work without her and has offered her co-workers to choose between keeping Sandra on the team or receiving a one-time bonus of €1,000. The outcome is exactly what you might be guessing: self-interest prevailed, and the majority of Sandra’s co-workers voted for their own bonus.

A colleague and friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces Sandra to ask the boss for another vote, as she has received word some of the employees were intimidated to vote for bonuses over Sandra. At first, Sandra appears weak, dubious and hesitant, but bolstered by her friend, who stands at her side, she asks the factory manager to Still9hold a second vote. It is a Friday evening and the factory owner agrees to hold the re-vote on Monday. The mother of two children, Sandra is also pressured by her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works at a budget chain restaurant, to visit her co-workers at home and in some cases their second jobs, to campaign for herself. Should she lose her job, after all, she will go back on the dole, and her family will have to move back into public housing.

With the intimacy of this story, Two Days, One Night presents an unwavering and heartfelt look at the realities of the European proletariat. With a stagnant unemployment rate in Belgium at 8.5 percent and weak economic growth, the realities of the working class in Belgium seem bleak (some numbers from the National Bank of Belgium). The Dardenne brothers are able to capture the complexity of the labor market while focusing deeply in a single character with an actress in immense control of her talents.

Over the course of time in the film’s title, Sandra tries to hold it together, popping Xanax pills for energy and muttering to herself “you mustn’t cry” on more than one occasion. Cotillard gives a brilliantly modulated performance, and the Dardennes’ distant camera catches the actress genuinely acting, working off other players. As she maintains a strong face in the presence of her work mates, alone and sometimes with her husband, she Still4seems to barely hold herself together, caving to feelings of despair. When Manu tells her early in the film, in an effort of support, “You exist, Sandra … I love you,” she dynamically takes in his tender reminder of her relevance. She holds on to the positive energy with a tight grip, pauses for a moment to nearly double over in tears, but then composes herself. It reveals how threadbare Sandra’s composure is in the face of the challenge that lies ahead.

Cotillard’s range in just those few seconds is heart-stopping, and it works so well with the reserved, purist style of melodrama by the Dardennes. There’s no need to heighten scenes with music, slow motion, montage or close-ups. As Sandra confronts the various characters she works with, all give an array of reasons for either voting for her or their bonuses. In every encounter with her co-workers Sandra changes a little. Her voice wavers, she re-gains strength and confronts her own fears of not being wanted. The decisions by the Dardennes to keep he camera rolling as she crosses streets or walks paths before facing her co-workers or waiting several beats to cut away at the end of these scenes, as she turns to leave, bring a focus to these small transformations without feeling intrusive or manipulative. You really root for and sympathize with Sandra.


It’s all beautifully shot by the Dardennes’ regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen. The images are often vibrant yet mundane. Again, it’s anti-romantic but movingly raw and real. Sometimes the camera is the editor. To emphasize one rare close-up, which the film earns impactfully when Sandra’s task seems insurmountable, a swish pan to Sandra allows hardly a moment of acting to be wasted. It all dynamically builds up to a moving pay-off that affirms the strength of an individual looking for value in one way but finding it another way. That the Dardennes pull it off so powerfully with such minimal cinematic flourish speaks to their focused storytelling and a major performance by Cotillard. The reflection of life by cinema is rarely this poetic and profound.

Hans and Ana Morgenstern

Two Days One Night runs 95 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some reason.

Screening update: There’s a series of encore screenings scheduled at the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting March 6.

It first opened in our Miami area Friday, January 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and then expanded to the north in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on January 30th at the following theaters:

  • Gateway in Fort Lauderdale
  • Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood
  • Movies of Delray in Delray Beach
  • Movies of Lake Worth in Lake Worth
  • Living Room in Boca Raton
  • Silverspot in Naples

Update: More South Florida screenings have been scheduled for Friday, February 6th:

  • Belltower Stadium 20 in Fort Myers
  • MDC’s Tower Theater in Miami
  • O Cinemas Miami Beach in Miami Beach
  • Hollywood Stadium 20 in Naples
  • Movies of Delray 5 in Delray Beach

IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).

But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.

Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.

During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.

After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.

However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.

The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.

Hans Morgenstern

Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)