One of the criticisms occasionally lobbed at Cannes is that the programmers have their “pet” filmmakers, the ones who possess a kind of standing invitation to the festival. Any time these darlings make a movie, it’s basically guaranteed a spot in the competition lineup, regardless of its quality (or so the argument goes). Superficially speaking, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are probably the easiest example to cite. After all, the Belgian brothers have been a mainstay of the fest since 1999, when they won the first of two Palme D’Or prizes for Rosetta; every film they’ve made since has not only played at Cannes, but picked up a major award here. The only problem with positioning these perennial contenders as the poster-boys of festival favoritism is that, well, pretty much everything they make is worthwhile. Even the “minor” efforts, like 2011’s The Kid With A Bike, are among the most confident films of their respective years. The Dardennes earn their keep.
The siblings’ winning streak may very well continue this year, if the instantly rapturous reception for their latest, Two Days, One Night (Grade: A-), is any indication. But this is not business as usual for the Dardennes; while their last two features, the aforementioned Bike and 2008’s Lorna’s Silence, were both received as more of the same by some critics, this one undeniably breaks new ground. For one thing, its lead role is played not by some talented nonprofessional plucked out of obscurity, but by a bona fide international movie star, Marion Cotillard. Beyond that, the film is also a respite from the bleakness that sometimes characterizes the Dardennes’ work. It’s tough but never dispiriting, chasing glimmers of hope across a rocky economic landscape.
Thankfully, plunking a famous actress down in front of the directors’ reliably pursuing lens never proves distracting, mostly because the star sheds almost all traces of vanity. Occupying what could have been a Gena Rowlands role in a different era, Cotillard plays Sandra, a mother of two who awakes, in the film’s opening scene, to discover that her job at the solar panel factory is on the chopping block. In an especially wormy middle-management move, the company has opted to put her fate in the hands of the other employees, allowing them to save her job at the expense of their annual €1,000 bonus. Predictably, and perhaps understandably, only two of the 16 workers have voted in her favor. Still recovering from a long bout of depression, and dangerously close to having to move her family back into public housing, Sandra teeters on the edge of an emotional collapse. But at the urging of her supportive husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she convinces her boss to allow for a second, anonymous vote on Monday morning. And so with her livelihood at a stake, she spends the weekend tracking down her co-workers, making a direct emotional appeal to each of them in hopes of securing a majority tally.
It’s a brilliant premise. Working with a ticking-clock scenario that’s almost conventionally exciting, the Dardennes essentially reconfigure 12 Angry Men into an episodic drama about the zero-sum game of economic crisis. As Sandra hops around town, from one employee’s home to the next, the film unfolds as a series of miniature moral confrontations, Sandra politely but firmly forcing her co-workers to weigh her predicament against their self interests. What’s remarkable is that the Dardennes never reduce any of these characters to heartless villains; each has his or her good reason to vote for the bonus, the loud-and-clear message being that it’s the company and management who have engineered this lose-lose situation. That makes Two Days, One Night the rare film about our new financial age to resist cynicism. It’s also just a powerful, urgent story of a working-class striver finding her strength in a time of weakness, family and empathetic colleagues helping her steel herself against despair. There’s an emotional clarity here uncommon even to these great filmmakers.
With the Dardennes fully justifying their inclusion in the lineup, those looking to make a damning case against preferential treatment in the selection process should look instead to Still The Water (Grade: C-), the latest from Cannes regular Naomi Kawase. This is the first of the Japanese director’s films I’ve ever seen, quite possibly because they earn acclaim almost nowhere but in Cannes. And if the new one is any indication of what her work is normally like, I can see why many of my peers roll their eyes every time her name is announced by chief programmer Thierry Fremaux.
Shot and set on the island of Amami Oshima, Still The Water concerns a pair of teenage sweethearts, Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) and Kaito (Nijiri Murakami), grappling with love and death after the latter finds a body washed up on shore. Kyoko has a Shaman mother who’s dying of cancer, while Kaito is estranged from his father, who lives in Tokyo. The two are kindred spirits of adolescent confusion, so it’s perhaps permissible that their dialogue oscillates evenly between soggy philosophical inquiry (“Why do people have to be born and why do they die?”) and melodramatic tantrums. There are some nice moments sprinkled throughout, like Kaito real-talking with his pops in Tokyo, and the island scenery is sometimes striking. But the film is mostly a meandering bore, grasping for a profundity it rarely achieves. Worse still, Kawase films almost everything in graceless handheld; the lines of the frame drift as aimlessly as the plot, the camera bobbing and jerking in unmotivated ways, as though its operator were floating on the crashing waves depicted in the opening scene. As both drama and filmmaking, it’s very clumsy—and strong evidence to suggest that the programmers may have paid more attention to the byline than the movie.
Outside of the competition lineup, where filmmakers can live and die a little more on their work, David Michôd debuted his post-apocalyptic road movie The Rover (Grade: B), which hits U.S. screens this summer. Among critics, I’m in the extreme minority in thinking little of the Aussie director’s last movie, Animal Kingdom, which struck me as generically brutal crime fiction dressed up (down?) to look like something unique. That’s not entirely untrue of The Rover either—it’s got plenty of macho postures and sudden, vicious violence—but the film borrows from better movies and shrouds its clichés with a more attractive veil.
It also wastes no time getting down to business, opening with a gang of thugs jacking the prized automobile of the unnamed protagonist (Guy Pearce, as grizzled as he’s ever been). The film, which is set in the aftermath of some global upheaval (“Ten years after the fall,” is about all the exposition provided), follows this nihilistic outlaw as he takes pursuit. Eventually, he runs across a simpleton (Robert Pattinson), the abandoned brother of one of the men he’s hunting; Pearce’s anti-hero takes him hostage and the two traverse a colorfully desolate Australian landscape, which vaguely resembles just about every Western-flavored dystopian hellhole the movies have ever given us. Michôd borrows freely from countryman John Hillcoat, mixing elements of The Proposition (which also starred Pearce) and The Road. The film is one-note in its nihilistic worldview and never quite thrilling, even when guns are blazing and rubber is burning on asphalt. But it has Aussie personality to spare, the bit players giving their all in microscopic roles and the Outback locales never less than gorgeous to gawk at. And both leads are quite good—Pearce summoning some of the melancholic resignation of Leonard Shelby, while Pattinson gives the type of entertainingly twitchy performance that may yet rescue him from the straitjacket of tween-friendly stardom.