In Two Days, One Night, the great Marion Cotillard plays a woman who has to go around her Belgian town trying to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses in order to win her job at a solar-panel factory back. That may sound like a fairly dry premise for a film, but the results are stunningly suspenseful. That’s because Two Days, One Night is a film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the two Belgian brothers whose works tread the fine line between socially conscious drama, bleak realism, and incredible tension. Over the past several decades, the Dardennes have built up one of the most acclaimed and unique bodies of work in all of cinema. They’ve been rewarded with two Palmes d’Or at Cannes in the process, for 1999’s Rosetta and 2005’s The Child. (And, given the rapturous reception that each new film from them seems to attract on the Croisette, many believe the duo will eventually win an unprecedented third Palme.) Two Days, One Night is a major film, and very characteristic of the Dardennes’ aesthetic, but it also seems to take their work in some new directions. How, exactly, do the Dardennes manage to create works of such resonance, beauty, and suspense while remaining true to their low-key, realistic approach? And what was it like working with a huge movie star? We spoke to them on the occasion of their new film’s U.S. release.
You often use nonprofessionals or relative unknowns in your films. But Two Days, One Night stars one of the biggest actresses in the world, alongside less-experienced actors and nonprofessionals. Does this require a different approach when it comes to directing actors?
Luc Dardenne: There are two things. When we work with a professional actor, they need to leave their self-image as an actor behind; they have to let go of this idea of acting. On the other hand, when we work with a nonprofessional actor, they have to let go of their own self-image — whatever image they have of themselves in life — behind. That’s the first order of business that has to be taken care of. When Marion came to work with us, we rehearsed for five weeks. It’s during that rehearsal process that the differences between professionals and nonprofessionals are evened out. It allows someone like Marion to blend in with the rest of the cast. And she was also extremely generous with [the] actors, some of whom had never acted before. It gave the time to remove that actor image of her, and it created a climate of trust among all the actors — it allowed them all to feel that they can make mistakes, make suggestions. That’s how I think we’re able to create an atmosphere of “homogeneity.”
Of course, one of the conditions for this to work was that Marion had to agree to this. She said from the outset that she would work in our context, under our conditions. She said to us, “Do with me whatever you want.” Now, it’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to do it. And she was true to her word. I mean, she just dove into the work and allowed us to work with her the way we work. An actress who can do that is a great actress, and it was absolutely fabulous to be able to work with someone like that.
Have you ever had an actor refuse to work this way?
Luc: No, not yet. [Laughs.]
You said you rehearsed for some time, and that the actors felt free to make suggestions. Do you improvise a lot? What’s your collaboration like with the actors before you start shooting?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: First of all, all of the actors have the script before the rehearsal starts. The main actors have the whole script, the supporting actors have portions of the script. We rehearse pretty much the way we shoot: We rehearse in sequence. And we really do rehearse with the script. We stay close to what’s on the page. The modifications that occur throughout the rehearsal process — sometimes with the complicity of the actors, sometimes not — is really a process of simplification, of tearing down what we initially start with. But essentially, the end result is really close.
One thing I’m always struck by in your films is this question of suspense. Two Days, One Night is basically a ticking-clock movie, where the protagonist has to accomplish something critical within a limited amount of time. And a lot of your films — even though they treat important subjects and are very serious dramas — could easily become thrillers. Is this something you think about when you’re conceiving of your films?
Luc: We always think about it. And it’s not just about the suspense, it’s also about the audience member being in a state of waiting for something — of expecting and not knowing. That creates the possibility of having different hypotheses. Where the viewer is saying, “Could it be this, could it be that …” et cetera. The audience member is forced to imagine what may or may not happen to the character. We try to surprise the audience with something that they may not have imagined. So, we’re constantly thinking about that element. The suspense that’s intrinsic to all our characters is, how are they going to get out of the spot that they’re in? Whether it’s their solitude, or their illness, or where they’re stuck socially. Whatever is trapping them. How are they going to manage to overcome and release themselves from that situation? The suspense has to do with them overcoming those odds.
And yet, Two Days, One Night, for all its suspense, is really just a film about a series of negotiations, usually between two people. How did you go about trying to make that cinematic?
Jean-Pierre: What we wanted in each meeting with Sandra [Cotillard's character] and her colleagues was that it be in one take, because it forces the audience member to live it in real time. It underscores that experience of being there. And in terms of the direction, one of the most important things we did was to give as much importance in the take to Sandra’s colleague as to Sandra. Very often the camera is between them. Yes, sometimes it pans, but we kept it as limited as possible. So that, as an audience member, you keep hearing that sentence, “Put yourself in my place.” Or, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” We felt that by doing this, you force the spectator to put themselves in that situation and ask that question of themselves: “What would I do in that situation?”
I also noticed that very often there were obstacles in the frame between the characters. Very often Sandra is talking to people through door openings — as if to emphasize this inability to connect.
Luc: In all of our meetings with Sandra and her colleagues, there are obstacles. For example, one was working with the tiles. Or in the store, you had the containers of vegetables. And the door openings, which you mentioned. We also had a scene where we had two different colors — one wall was made of brick, and on the other side, where the other character was, we had brown. So there’s always something separating the characters in the scenes. And when one of the characters says they’re going to go with Sandra and vote in her favor, the separation disappears. For example, in the scene with the soccer player, he reaches over and he grabs her hand over the fence. But yes, we felt that the camera always needed obstacles when it [was] following Sandra.
These characters are a bit different from the ones you usually film, who tend to be more marginalized. But the characters in Two Days, One Night could easily be considered middle-class — they have what could be considered a good job. Yet many of them are just a couple of paychecks away from going on the dole.
Jean-Pierre: It’s true that this time we’ve made a film about people who, rather than being on the margins of society, they’re in the society. They work, they live in houses or nice apartments. But they do have difficulties. And that’s what was so interesting to us, because it makes their choice a moral one — not uniquely a choice made out of desperation. And it also makes the choice very difficult, in terms of deciding where to go.
Can you talk a little about the fact that Sandra is recovering from a recent bout of clinical depression? It’s rare for you to have this kind of backstory in one of your films.
Luc: The element of depression is important because it makes her more vulnerable. It makes her more fragile. But we wanted to celebrate vulnerability and fragility because it’s the opposite of what is being pushed in society today, which is victory to the strongest. At the same time, we didn’t want to explain why Sandra is depressed. We wanted to talk about how she gets out of it. But it is true: This is the first time that we’ve had a character with a backstory that was important, that left traces and colored the film. So we hinted at it. She’s been with her partner Manu for about ten years, and they have a couple of kids, and we have him saying things like, “The doctor said you were supposed to take these meds.” He also says, “Stop crying,” over and over again. That gives you an indication of what it was like before. What we were working on was that she needed to get past all this — she wants to be clear of it. But we didn’t want to explain it.
You’ve stayed remarkably true to your own vision over the years — shooting in the same places, shooting the same types of films. You’ve won two Palmes at Cannes, and you’re among the most acclaimed directors in the world. Has anyone ever tried to lure you away with bigger projects?
Luc: I don’t remember getting a huge amount of proposals or offers. Maybe after La Promesse. We did get some offers to make some films where the screenplays were written — one American film in particular. But we always preferred to make the films that we wanted, and to do it on our terms and on our turf. But after that, there was no flood of proposals or offers.
How do you work together? Does each of you have different responsibilities, or do you collaborate on everything?
Luc: We do everything together. The only place where there’s a slight division of labor is the screenwriting process. We structure and build the story together, and then I write. That’s the only time. In terms of the casting, the sets, the shoot, the editing — everything we do together.
Do you ever disagree on anything?
Luc: No. We both want to make the same movie. It’s not like wanting different governments, or one of us wanting white and one of us wanting black. We both come from the same place, and we always come to the same place.