Two reviews for the price of one today, as I catch up with a couple of significant foreign language films that came out last year, both of which are seriously worth a look. The first is Two Days, One Night, the Cannes entry from Belgium's the Dardennes brothers, who have a history of making humanist dramas with a strong working class bent, something we don't see nearly enough of in American film.
This time they work with a much more known actress than usual, as Marion Cotillard takes the lead role as a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown, who now suffers the indignity of having to ask each one of her co-workers to vote against a pay raise so that she can keep her job at a factory. It's never made clear exactly what the work is that's being done in this factory, but it doesn't matter much, as Cotillard races against the clock to visit each and every one of the twelve colleagues she needs to procure a promise from before the vote is taken. The film works as a fascinating observation in human nature, because each person Cotillard faces reacts completely differently, many hostile, some guilty, others willing and eager to help her out, even it means sacrificing their own pay. And Cotillard gives a very earnest performance with a character who at times becomes unbearable in her self-pity and suicidal tendencies. That may sound harsh, but after her recent breakdown she attempts yet another suicide in the middle of her fight for her family's future, and you can't help but think this woman probably does belong in a hospital ward and frankly shouldn't be working at all.
There's also a tendency for the nature of the story to become a bit repetitive, as we see Cotillard confront every one of her colleagues with the same exact speech, but the human drama is very potent and the ultimate outcome extremely affecting. The other movie getting quite a bit of awards buzz (it's certain to be a frontrunner for this year's Oscar for Foreign Language Film) is Sweden's Force Majuere, an exploration of marriage and communication between couples by way of a claustrophobic thriller set at a ski resort. A family of four is on vacation for a long weekend when a terrifying incident unwittingly reveals the father Thomas's true colors, or so it would it seem to his wife Ebba. An avalanche threatens to surround the balcony where the family's having lunch, and at the moment the threat reveals itself, Thomas runs from the table, leapfrogs over his kids (but not before grabbing his phone) and leaves his family in the dust, literally. The avalanche turns out not to have been as fatal as it looked, but yeah- the rest of this vacation is going to be awkward. If that sounds kind of funny when read, that's how it plays in the film as well, and the situation is mined for dark laughs as well as spot on observations about the way men and women often have an impossible time relating to each other or even telling each other what they want, while the kids look on as unwitting bystanders to their parents' relationship drama.
The way this whole scenario is explored is never less than totally engrossing, amplified by the pressurized setting of the mountainside resort and another couple that's dragged into Thomas and Ebba's increasing frustration with one another. The movie is a vastly entertaining, thoughtful and sharply written depiction of marriage and a kind of battle of the sexes, until a long, drawn out and unnecessarily ambiguous ending throws everything out of whack, making you scratch your head over what it is you just watched. I wish it hadn't taken such a hard left turn at the end of the movie, one that unfortunately does scar what came before it, but for a good 90% of the film, Force Majeure provides you with some of the year's best cinematic moments, and it's a conversation starter that's definitely worth checking out.
Two Days, One Night: * * * 1/2 / Force Majeure: * * * 1/2