TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

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dir by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne almost completed an unprecedented hat-trick of Cannes wins earlier this year with this simple premise that allows a complex unravelling of emotions and conflicts to play out over its titular period. Although it came away without the prize (won by Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s “Winter Sleep”), it nevertheless received a deserved fifteen minute standing ovation. Much of the praise focuses on Marion Cotillard’s mesmerising central performance, but it must be remembered that the directors rigorous method and uncanny ability with actors produce such brilliance.
The premise then is that Sandra (Cotillard) is a young wife and mother who has returned to a small factory after a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately the management have decided they don’t need her and initially sack her; but some wrangling manages to get a barbed compromise – the other workers get to vote on whether to take her back. Management try to sway the decision by offering a €1000 bonus if she is made redundant. And so the film unfolds as Sandra and her husband travel to the sixteen colleagues to try to persuade them that solidarity is worth more than self interest.

Cotillard may be more familiar to multiplex audiences from her roles as a glamorous or exotic femme but here she is stripped of any such pretence and gives a nuanced and arduous presentation of a woman struggling with depression. One of the keys to this is repetition. Once we see her walking to the front door of a yet another colleague, we understand that there will be no contractions, no music video montage, we will instead follow Sandra’s footsteps and, feel her growing exhaustion without being tired or bored ourself. Cotillard is never a victim, nor is she the plucky underdog. But over the course of her repetitive appeals we see a gradual and perceptive rise of nervous exhaustion, despair and emotional fatigue without melodrama or histrionics. Sandra is ably supported by her determined and understanding husband, played by Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione. The scenes between the husband and wife tell of a strain in their relationship brought on by her breakdown. Sandra’s fear is not just losing her job; to her, she could lose her marriage and even, at her darkest moments, her life.
The Dardenne’s method is well known – to go for multiple takes, as many as 50, until the dialogue and action become utterly ingrained in the performer in a manner that recalls Robert Bresson. The understated and contained drama from films such as “A Man Escaped” or “Diary of a Country Priest” manifest here in Sandra’s appeals and in the varied responses from her colleagues. Each one is aware that “they might be next”, but each is also in such financial straits that they are held to a policy of self preservation. The film orchestrates the ebbs and flows of emotions, the highs and lows, the characters and their arcs, masterfully. While the exact details of the premise may seem a tad contrived, nothing about the performances or the drama that unfolds ever leaves a degree of honesty so rarely found in cinema. And right to the end, where one might expect a twist or the non-Hollywood ending, the Dardenne’s harbour a surprise that is fully in line with what we have experienced.

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LEVIATHAN

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dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Andrey Zvyagintsev has carved a solid niche in world cinema as a purveyor of intense relationships in a dark and pitiless world.  His style of  exquisitely painterly shot construction and stately pace has drawn inevitable comparisons with older Russian masters Sokurov and Tarkovsky.  But with his latest feature, Zvyagintsev has turned outward to create a scathing portrait of contemporary Russia, something his two forebears shied away from.

Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay, a somewhat hot headed handyman, who lives in a house built with his own hands, with his beautiful second wife Lilya and simmeringly resentful teenage son Roma from his first, now deceased, wife.  The house stands on land that the town mayor wants for a redevelopment project, and it is this clash of Nikolay against the corrupt leviathan of the mayor and all the powers of law and disorder he can bring to bear that is the centre of the film.  Nikolay’s last hope is to call on his old friend from their army days, Dmitriy, who is a successful Moscow lawyer.  But this is no plucky underdog tale.  Zvyagintsev’s screenplay is a modern reworking of the Old Testament book of Job, and bears a title that recalls the implacable beast of the Old Testament as well as the 17th century work on the structure of society and government by Hobbes.  His film aims for no less, with a sophisticated and layered dissection of a small community that clearly stands for wider Russia as a whole.

Despite the dire trials Nikolay is sent through, the film also carries scenes of dark humour – usually the result of incredible amounts of vodka consumption.  From errant boys to family friends, local police and the mayor himself, no-one is free from vodka, Russia’s spirit, with effects that usually result in violence.  Equally, no-one is free from corruption and immorality.  Each character is finely drawn and portrayed (the acting throughout is outstanding), their flaws arising from weakness, desperation, loneliness, a woeful sense of being utterly lost in this broken down village on the end of the world.  There is no white knight to the rescue, either: lawyer Dmitriy’s tactic is not to rely on the law, but to threaten the mayor with a folder of evidence of his past dirty deeds.  And out here, not even the eyes of God seem to reach the venal mayor or the Orthodox primate who advises him from his luxurious position.

Leviathan was shot in and around a couple of villages and towns in northern Murmansk and it truly looks like a last (or lost) outpost beyond the end of the world.  Roads are roughshod and carved out of the bare rock.  Streets and plazas are overgrown, cars are held together with rope, buildings are half abandoned and dilapidated, ruined churches serve as drinking spots for local youths.  The leaden ocean roars and crashes against the jagged coast under the grim sky, as if trying to demolish the crumbling human society and reclaim it to nature.  And yet, despite this setting seemingly beyond the reach of civilisation, Zvyagintsev makes this parable about God and politics and morality at the very heart of Russian society.

BOYHOOD

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(dir. Richard Linklater, 2014).

Many directors who have auteur tendencies have noticeable thematic obsessions that they return to and turn over throughout their work.  Stanley Kubrick’s obsession with the human mind against the perfect system,  Ingmar Bergman’s faith, betrayal and sanity and Terrence Malick’s work on nature, God and love are well documented.  Amongst these ranks, what might be seen as an unlikely addition is the unassuming autodidact, also from Malick’s Austin, Texas, Richard Linklater.  The 54 year old’s consistent theme or fixation, from his first feature “Slacker” (1991) has, arguably, been time.  His first four features⁠1 all transpired over the course of one day – usually an afternoon turning to evening, night, and some form of denouement with the rising of the sun.  Twice he has made a film⁠2 “in real time” which, in “Before Sunset” becomes far more than a gimmick or device, it becomes the very nature of the encounter between the two love-lorn protagonists.  Indeed, with his “Before” trilogy⁠3 Linklater manages to pull of a substantial conceit by making what he has not even filmed become a major point of narrative – the time in between the films, which is “real time” (i.e. the nine year gap for us the viewers is also a nine year gap in the lives of the main characters).

With “Boyhood” Linklater has taken all of these obsessions and ideas and created something which is not only bound up in his fascination with the passing of time, but its method of creation is unavoidably prominent in the viewing of the film.   In 2002 Linklater cast a seven year old boy to play the eponymous lead in his then untitled project, with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette cast as his parents and his own daughter Lorelei Linklater as the boy’s sister.  Unique in the history of cinema, Linklater took the bold gamble of having the cast and crew convene for a few weeks every year for the next twelve years to write and film another part of the story of the boy growing up.

The story is incredibly simple; deceptively so.  In others hands, a group of young actors would be used and the film shot in the traditional manner.  But Linklater wanted time to intrude on the process, so that the images became imbued with the time of the time.  The risks were obvious – what if one of the cast (or the director!) suffered some form of accident?  Linklater took this in his stride, writing each segment as the cast reconvened, taking cue from their own lives in the interim to inspire the scenes.  He was prepared to write in deaths or accidents, even instructing Ethan Hawke to take over the project if he died.

Thankfully nothing of the kind occurred and so Linklater had twelve years of footage to conjure his “Tolstoy-esque in scope”⁠4 epic. Two further directorial decisions elevated this from impressive technical achievement to work of genius: the editing and the writing.  Linklater has long been known for favouring what might almost be called the mundane, his narratives featuring dialogue-heavy attention not to the (melo-)dramatic and Earth-shattering events, but to the beauty inherent in the minutiae of the every day, recalling perhaps Eric Rohmer or the Dardenne brothers.  None more so than in “Boyhood”.

Young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is first seen as a cherub-faced six year old, laid on his back on the grass, gazing at the clouds.  Then we see him and a friend looking at the women’s underwear section of a catalogue, before cycling through the neighbourhood home where they find their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) arguing with her boyfriend.  Olivia decides to leave him and move the family so she can attend university to complete her degree and get better paid work.  Next we are in Houston as their estranged father Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) takes the children bowling.  Within the first fifteen minutes or so, Linklater has demonstrated how his tale will unfold.  He has eschewed any obvious demarcation between years; there are no title cards or dissolves or music montages to lead the viewer by the nose through the timeline.  Instead the physical changes to the actors are our guide.  In one remarkable sequence the children run into a bedroom in their new house, Mason a little taller, his hair longer, his limbs a little longer, his face losing a little more of its baby fat.  Like the time interludes between his “Before” series, ones attention is drawn subtly to what has been neglected from the screen.  Lesser films may have begun with the separation of the parents, or dramatised the departure from the house and the moving to the new one.  Throughout, this ellipses refuses to give us all but one birthday, the house moves, the marriage and subsequent breakups that the long suffering mother goes through, first kiss, first drink etc.  Linklater seems to be telling us that such signposts in life are artificial, externally imposed, and it is the nature of memory that sometimes a conversation with a girl walking down a side street about a party after school is more embedded in the memory than an anniversary of sorts.

Young Mason’s growth and changes are reflected in his family.  His sister grows to be somewhat self absorbed and demanding.  Although a later scene where she has let Mason and his girlfriend sleep in her college dorm showed that perhaps this was her way of growing up and finding her own identity apart from that of the little girl.  Once Mason was older, their bond seemed to return in unspoken gestures such as this.  Ethan Hawke begins as a classic Linklater young male, seemingly escaped from “Dazed And Confused”, complete with 70s muscle car.  He is friendly, casual, maybe too young for fatherhood (recalling Jesse’s description of his parents from Before Sunrise).  But he, too, grows up in a startling shift from 70s drifter to moustachioed people carrier driver, with a new wife of devout Christian faith, which leads to a painful scene where his wife’s ageing Texas parents give 15 year old Mason his first rifle and bible for his birthday.  As with his sister, Mason grows near to young adulthood and finds a better bond with his father.  But it  is his mother who very nearly steals the whole show.  Patricia Arquette has never been better as the caring, put upon, tireless whirlwind of meals and moving and failed marriages, of which there are two.  Again we do not see the betrothals nor breakups, this is not a saga like The Godfather that is punctuated by ceremony.  She moves the family, studies for a degree at university, works, feeds the kids, becomes a teacher, endures two marriages to men who turn out to have alcohol problems before she leaves them; she is the binding force for them and Arquette plays her with a compassion and realism that hints at a dozen other possible films that we only glimpse at in passing.

And it is this “passing” that remains the heart of Linklater’s opus.  Mason Snr might try to espouse fatherly lessons in a philosophical manner, but it is over a beer and an old friend’s band practice that the realisation of time comes not only to the characters, but to us as viewers, too.  Arquette gets perhaps the most poignant moment when, in her own single apartment as her gangly and partially bearded son prepares to leave for university, she catches that ephemeral moment that has been so fleeting throughout the film, and their lives.  “I just… thought there would be more,” she says.  But the moment passes, like they all do, with an inevitability that this wonderful film refuses to sentimentalise but instead draws us in completely and leaves us with Linklater typically refusing to tie his narrative shoe-laces, with an open-ness to the future.

1 Slacker (1991), Dazed And Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), SubUrbia (1997).

2 Tape (2001), Before Sunset (2004).

3 Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013).

4 Jagernauth, Kevin (June 6, 2013). “Ethan Hawke Says Richard Linklater’s Secret, Long Developing ‘Boyhood’ Will Be Released In 2 Years”. Indiewire. The Playlist (blog). Retrieved 8 June 2013.