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.

L’Avventura: Finding the Main Character

Ending the summer watching Italian films one after another, I find it thrilling in L’Avventura (1960, screenplay by Michelangelo by Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra), to hit the reset button more than once, and quite late in the story, about the writer’s first question: Who is the main character?

The only contemporary film I can think of that achieves anything like this is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (script by Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal, and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan), which takes a good 35 minutes to meet the main character. I suppose you could also say The Place Beyond the Pines (written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder) with its stunning turn at the end of the motorcycle chase, does this too, but both of these films become cop and crime dramas.

If stories are defined by their lead characters and what they want, then the adventure in L’Avventura is the journey from what one character wants to another. First it’s Anna, who wants more than she’s getting from her boyfriend Sandro. Then when her disappearance puts the onus of finding her on her Sandro, he’s the one. Then by the time he’s started sleeping with Anna’s best friend Claudia, and she becomes the first and only character to open her heart, she carries the film. I confess I was still thinking of it as Sandro’s story, but in the final sequence she is the one who wants Sandro’s love, and makes the heart-breaking discovery.

Sandro and Claudia's big adventure.

Sandro and Claudia’s big adventure.

Co-writer Tonino Guerra, an anti-fascist who did time in a Nazi prison camp and wrote his first screenplay at 36, also co-wrote several films for not just Antonioni, but Fellini and Tarkovsky. I knew from Amarcord that he has a knack for making a yarn seem effortless, or possibly out of control, but also for everything to feel like it’s in the right place, so I watched it closely. My beatsheet is below. Antonioni’s name evokes slow, gorgeous shots of architecture and modern landscapes, with the characters just tiny parts of the composition.  That his films are about the alienation or soullessness of 20th Century life is a catchphrase that sounds a lot better than “Who the hell knows what he’s thinking?”  L’Avventura begins with natural landscapes and then, after the illicit lovers have hooked up, places them in the eerily empty architecture. It’s as if Antonioni himself is finding out what he has to say as the story unfolds.

What’s it about? How we only truly touch each other after we have tried to transcend what is possible and failed at it. Or maybe it’s about a skirt-chasing Italian guy surrounded by gorgeous women.



Anna talks to her father, an industrialist and retired diplomat. She’s going away for a weekend at sea, and he warns her that her boyfriend will never marry her. He strikes a nerve.

Anna takes her friend Claudia to go meet her boyfriend Sandro. They have an icy hello: Sandro striking mock poses trying to be funny. Anna is ready for some hurry-up sex. Sandro objects that Claudia is waiting outside, but Anna says “Let her wait,” and they make love while Claudia waits outside and wanders into an art show.

The next morning, they’re on a yacht at sea with Sandro’s friends, all couples who are on one another’s nerves. (Sandro is an architect who gets contracts from these people.) There’s wealthy Corrado & young Giulia, Raimondo & Patrizia. Patrizia says she doesn’t “get” islands and stays indoors. Anna pretends she saw a shark, causing Sandro to come save her, then confesses to Claudia that it was a lie.

They all go ashore on a volcanic island. Alone with Sandro, Anna complains that she’s not happy with things, Sandro tries to reassure her that they will get married, but that doesn’t make her happy either: she wants time alone.

Sandro takes a snooze. The weather turns windy, and the others all decide to leave, but they can’t find Anna anywhere. (27 minutes)

They search all over, including the treacherous tidal crevasses of the island. No Anna. They find a locked shepherd’s house at the top.

Storm clouds come. Giulia complains to Claudia that Corrado has been belittling her all day.

Sandro comes up with a sensible plan: You all go to the next island to report her missing, and I’ll stay here. Corrado also stays, and Claudia insists on staying too.

Rain comes, and they force their way into the shepherd’s hut. Alone just the three of them, Claudia comes clean, that she has reason to think Anna is bluffing since she knows Anna faked the shark attack. Sandro adds that she said she wanted to be alone.

The shepherd returns, and they tell him they’re looking for a friend who disappeared. Sandro and Claudia trade accusations. They spend the night.

In the morning, Claudia watches the sun come up. She and Sandro make peace and talk about how frustrating Anna can be. They’ve begun figuring that enough boats come and go that Anna could easily have escaped the island. Sandro and Claudia look at each other anew.

The Coast Guard comes and helps do a thorough search. Claudia nominates Sandro to join the Coast Guard in searching the next island, but they all stay.

Anna’s father arrives via a speedyacht. He’s taking over the search.

Back on the boat, Sandro kisses Claudia, but she’s not ready to get romantic with him just yet. She does agree to go to the police with him while the rest of the party sails on to Montaldo, Corrado’s villa in western Sicily.

On the mainland (Sicily) the police are interrogating some smugglers they saw off the island that day, and Sandro interrupts the inquiry. It turns out fruitless.

Afterward he catches up to Claudia at the train station. She acknowledges some feelings but begs Sandro not to follow her on the train – she’s taking it to Montaldo to join the rest. She gets on the train alone; he appears to wait behind then runs after it and gets on.

He finds her, and she points out she just met him three days before, begs him not to pursue her. She overhears a Sicilian boy trying to pick up a girl with lots of lies, and finds it amusing, but distasteful when Sandro persists with her.

He gets off the train at a small town stop, and this time he lets her get away. He looks for a journalist who wrote about Anna’s disappearance to see if there were any tips; he finds him covering a press stunt for a young starlet named Gloria Perkins.

Meanwhile, in Montaldo, Claudia has caught up to the others. No news about Anna, but she learns that Patrizia and Raimondo are not married – Patrizia is there with her husband – and young Giulia is smitten by a young nobleman right under Corrado’s nose.

Claudia gets dressed for dinner, eagerly watching to see if anyone new arrives at the villa – hoping for Sandro. She tries on a wig with Patrizia, looking a bit like Anna in her disguise, and gets roped into chaperoning for Giulia and her young nobleman until she gets shown the door.

Raimondo returns, and Claudia decides she doesn’t want to stay for dinner with these people. Sandro is following up on a lead from the newspaper, with a pharmacist who is fighting with his wife. Claudia, with her suitcase in tow, finds him there.

The pharmacist says he thinks Anna went to a village called Noto, so Claudia and Giulia drive there. On the way, they stop at a big, empty religious complex. They can’t find anyone. They start making out and dry-humping in the grass, and a train goes right past them.

They finally get around to looking for Anna at the only hotel in Noto. Claudia sends him in alone, waiting outside on purpose this time, and while she’s waiting outside dozens of Sicilian men stare her down. She imagines Sandro and Anna coming out of the hotel, feels filthy and hides in a paint store. Sandro finds her – really there was no sign of Anna – and she admits that she’d believe him if he said he loved her.

A nun shows them to the bell tower of a church. Sandro tells Claudia how disappointing his work is, since he’s just doing dull architecture jobs instead of the creative work he imagined it would be. They start messing with the bells, and a bell tower across town responds. He even suggests that maybe they should get married.

They horse around in a hotel room – they seem like they’ve slept together, Claudia singing along to the radio in her pajamas. She starts coercing overtures of love out of him. SHE poses for him now, the way he did for Anna in their first scene, but in a more spectacular way. He has to leave without her though…

To look for Anna, ostensibly, but all he does is absent-mindedly waste time, looking for an open museum and knocking an illustrator’s ink well over.

Back at the hotel, the maids have heard that they’re looking for someone so they advise Claudia to go check the youth hostel at Pergusa for her friend. Now when Sandro returns and tries to get fresh with her, she’s not in the mood.

They go to Montaldo, and Patrizia spots Claudia. They check into their room, but Claudia wants to stay alone. She advises Sandro not to overcommit himself to the men’s new projects, reminding him of his creative ambitions. Now they’re already mismatched.

Without Claudia, he goes looking for the others at the hotel bar. He leaves the guys with the impression that he’s on board with the new project and strolls around, trading glances a few times with Gloria – the starlet he saw in Noto.

Back in their room, Claudia misses him and wakes up alone at sunrise. She has the gorgeous sea vistas, but Sandro is nowhere to be seen. She wakes Patrizia and tells her she’s afraid that Sandro is with Anna, disgusted with herself since she now dreads that Anna may be alive.

Claudia searches the villa and finds Sandro in the parlor, making out with Gloria. She walks away, and he leaves a few bills with Gloria and follows her.

Now Sandro follows Claudia outside and finds her at a scenic overlook. They cry, and she hesitates a long while, but finally reaches out to stroke his head, and comforts him.