Two Days, One Night, Two Films, Three and a Half Billion Women

Two days, two films about gorgeous women mentally falling apart, so completely different.

First, in theaters everywhere – well, in two theaters here in New York anyway – the Dardenne Brothers are showing that they still got it. The duo that brought La Promesse, Le Fils, and The Kid With the Bike, among others, has teamed up with Marion Cotillard to make another deeply simple drama set in the Belgian working class.

The power of Two Days, One Night (written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) is in the simplicity of its premise. Sandra, suffering from a yet-unnamed illness, gets rousted from bed one afternoon to make an appearance at her job, so she has a chance to keep it. The boss already put her job to a vote, and she lost: Her sixteen coworkers, given a choice between keeping their expected €1,000 bonus and keeping their ill coworker on the team, voted overwhelmingly for their bonuses. But not so fast. It’s Friday afternoon, and Sandra’s best friend/coworker persuaded the boss to let them vote again, if Sandra can show up by 5:00 to ask in person. She gets there in the nick of time, and a vote is scheduled for Monday morning. Now she has the weekend to locate her coworkers, and lobby them to keep her on board.

The depth in the film comes from its portrayal of depression, which is damn hard to write a good script about. It’s so open-ended, the challenge is finding the finite premise, and make conflict out of the character’s penchant for giving up – their hit-and-miss willingness to even engage in the plot – while also tending to the bigger plot. It was probably a simple matter of the French language, but somehow I kept thinking of Gerard Depardieu as Robespierre in Danton, waging a legislative battle from his sick bed, The Terror consuming his body. How much better this was. How much more viscerally I could feel it.

Marion Cotillard

The times I was a tourist in Europe, and, say, took a train from the aeroport to the historic center of town, I couldn’t help but think that “real Europeans” live in the housing developments and bus routes of the suburbs I was zipping past. The Queens Counties and Yonkerses of Europe, without cathedrals. And I love the Dardennes for taking me there again and again.

Not that it’s a strictly personal story. They indulge in one moment that contextualizes the whole thing. As he’s driving away from Sandra that Friday afternoon, the boss points out that he has no choice but to give the crew this either-or decision because the company must compete with the Chinese! It’s a heavy-handed moment that arguably doesn’t belong, but there it is, so all the ads can say things like, “a profoundly political snapshot of an age of economic insecurity.”

Coincidentally, I’m still slowly traipsing, unplanned, through a year of Italian cinema, and I was honestly so bored by L’Eclisse that I was giving up on Antonioni, but since there’s a chapter devoted to Red Desert in a book I’m reading called Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, I thought I’d give him another try. Whoa! Am I glad I did!

Deserto Rosso was written by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and I’d love to see a major retrospective of films made from Guerra’s scripts. It would include L’Avventura, Blow Up, and Zabriskie Point, but also Amarcord and Nostalghia. In 1964, the same year as Red Desert, was Marriage Italian Style, of all films, which Guerra also got a co-writing credit on.

I guess I’d never tried it before because I was scared of the bombast: “A drama about alienation in the modern world…” the Netflix blurb begins. Well, maybe. I also see, at its core, what could be an independent film plot about a woman who has an affair with her husband’s colleague. I was surprised to read that Antonioni felt his films were direct descendants of neorealism: “I began as one of the first exponents of neorealism, and now by concentrating on the internals of character and psychology I do not think I have deserted the movement, but rather have pointed a path toward extending its boundaries….I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism.”*

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in "Red Desert."

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in “Red Desert.”

I guess this was on his and Guerra’s mind when they wrote the scene in which the heroine Giuliana asks her lover Zeller what he plans to take with him on his long trip to South America:

Zeller: Two or three bags.
Giuliana: If I were to go away, I’d take everything, everything I see, all the things I use every day, even the ashtrays.
Zeller: Then you might as well just stay put. You’d end up missing everything. The street where you live, your city.
Giuliana: You see in classified ads:”For sale, owner must relocate,” as if it were an excuse to abandon everything…or almost. Why? It shouldn’t be like that.**

It’s as if their characters are expressing the thesis and antithesis of their new spin on neorealism. She wants to record reality as it is. He wants to keep two or three suitcases of it and construct something closer to a whole picture of reality than just turning on a camera and letting it roll. Genius, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I can tell that, like Amarcord, I’m going to have to watch this film again and again.

Not that it’s completely invulnerable to criticism! Giuliana’s insanity is hard to swallow. Monica Vitti is one of those Italian women with faces so beautiful, and noses so imposing, that you turn into a stuttering idiot while you talk to them. If she appeared at your door in a toga and pouted, you’d ask if you could please go to ancient Rome with her. She stands still and the film revolves around her.

"Through a Glass, Darkly": woman as a timeless vessel.

“Through a Glass, Darkly”: woman as a timeless vessel.

So why is she writhing on the floor every time she gets stressed out? “Alienation in the modern world” got you down, Giuliana? It’s as if Antonioni and Guerra lost their nerve and couldn’t merely make a film about a couple in crisis, who shine a light on their era and all its splendid, polluted alienation. They even include a dreamy story-within-a-story that Giuliana tells her young son, about a pubescent girl on a red sand beach who follows an empty ship and discovers sexual desire in a metaphorical sense, and it cures the boy of his own “ailment.” They place the motive in every male in a voice this girl hears in that eponymous red desert, where “from an inlet among the rocks, the numerous rocks that she never realized were like flesh, and the voice in that spot sounded so sweet. Everything was singing. Everything.”

That’s plenty for me, but they had to make Giuliana freak out too. Make her embody and be her own alienated time. I guess they took the ship metaphor from Through a Glass Darkly – decrepit ship as crazy place where women dwell and men come of age by following them there – which was only two years old when they shot this, and went deeper with it.

I suppose this will happen as long as men write scripts in which women are a psychic element and not characters in the complete sense. Every woman is all women, all three and a half billion of them. And her insanity is a metaphor for what ails reality in general.

Two Days, One Night, which would be a great-niece of neorealism, or something like that, is a step in the right direction, since Sandra’s insanity is just what it is, a big pain in her ass, that makes everything harder and shines a light on nothing.

*From Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
**Apologies to Guerra and all Italian speakers: I jotted the dialogue off the Criterion Collection subtitles.


  1. Good one! Refreshing evolved take on women and depression. Last line kicks ass. You hold the honor of being the only blog I subscribe to…so far. Not that I haven’t TRIED to like the things. Yours just seem more like an act of generosity than the usual fun-for-one onanism. Cheers!Yours, Laura

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