If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The master filmmakers on blending the political and the personal in their new film.
It was a rare privilege and fascinating experience to speak with Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne during the screening of Two Days One Night at the 52nd New York Film Festival. They are auteurs par excellence, keeping tight reins over every aspect of their oeuvre—script, production and mise-en-scene. Their tightly-wound and intensely humanistic films, mostly direct but powerful stories about young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have won two Palme d’Or at Cannes for Rosetta, (1999)—along with Best Actress for Emilie Dequenne—and The Child (2005). In addition, Olivier Gourmet was named Best Actor for his role in The Son (2002), and the brothers won Best Screenplay for Lorna’s Silence (2008)—a well-deserved track record for low-budget filmmakers.
Typically working with new or non-professional actors, Two Days One Night is their first film to feature a noted international star, Marion Cotillard, as Sandra, a working mother just fired from a solar energy factory. A new management scam has placed the onus of downsizing on workers, who are offered a bonus if they vote to operate with one less employee, resulting in Sandra’s dismissal. While, in a very different way, unemployment was also the focus of Rosetta, the Dardennes break-out film—it reportedly led to the passing of a labor bill, Rosetta’s Law to protect young people—Two Days One Night addresses the issue of worker solidarity in a toxically competitive world.
In the following interview, the Dardennes discuss their documentary background, modus operandi, and the new film’s genesis. Two Days One Night opens theatrically on December 24.
Liza Béar I heard the trains were delayed.
Luc Dardenne Oh, we’re staying nearby at the Trump, so we walked. It’s the hotel the festival rented this year.
LB On your previous visits to the festival, before it was turned into a condo, you would have stayed at the Mayflower.
LD Yes. We liked the Mayflower very much.
LB If Godard had had a brother, do you think they would have made films together?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (laughter) Godard worked with Gorin and Anne-Marie Mieville, not exactly brothers.
LD But he did say that it needs more than one to look at an image.
LB There’s a three-year age difference between the two of you, and you weren’t born in the same place.
LD Jean-Pierre and my older sister were born in Engis, an industrial village in the Meuse Valley near Liege. When I came along my parents moved to a bigger apartment in a neighboring village. With the fourth child, they returned to Engis and built a house there. It’s a village of about 5700 inhabitants.
LB What led you to collaborate, rather than become rival siblings?
LD It was due to Armand Gatti, a playwright and filmmaker, who taught at a drama school that Jean-Pierre went to. At twenty-one he became Gatti’s assistant for a year and at eighteen I joined him. It was while we worked with Gatti on video and film projects, and later on a film as his assistants—that’s what brought my brother and me together. Otherwise maybe Jean-Pierre would have become an actor, and I a teacher. Once Gatti had left Belgium to direct a play in Germany we said to each other, Why not us? So we bought a video camera, in 1974.
LB Black and white half-inch reel-to-reel?
LD Voila. All because of Gatti. He was our spiritual mentor. At first we worked with children in an educational context on industrial housing estates and we also made documentary portraits. Then gradually we dropped the teaching. Our means were very rudimentary: no editing console. We’d shoot, say, a single take of our subject, then we’d stop and have him show some photos to the camera. The result was a twenty-minute video that we’d screen every Sunday in a church or public hall on those housing estates where we worked. In French it’s called le montage a la gachette or trigger.
LB In-camera editing.
LD Yes. We didn’t start real editing until we added voice-overs to the camera takes.
LB Did you think of yourselves as engagé or politically involved?
JPD No, not at first. Gatti had worked in Germany and with Che Guevara in Latin America. He’d written a play about Rosa Luxemburg, so we read her texts and Camilo Torres, the Colombian sociologist who anticipated liberation theology—lots of stuff, maybe even too much! But though I was in the student union, we were never part of the radical left wing groups in Belgium. I’d say we were more left-leaning, close to the socialist movement.
LB In 1991 or 1992, you formed a production company, Les Filmes du Fleuve, and started to make dramatic films. What prompted the change of format?
LD At a certain point we thought, why not tell our own stories? We realized with La Promessethere were scenes we could never have shot in documentary. For instance, the scene where a man and his son debate whether to let a man die because he’s bleeding heavily and they don’t want to treat him. That kind of situation would be hard to handle in a documentary. In fiction you can do it. Also, we wanted to work with actors. After a while, in documentary, more and more we would be asking the subject to do what we wanted them to do. And sometimes they would say, No, I don’t want to. Fiction was a way to eliminate this problem.
LB In the press notes it says you made eighty documentaries.
LD Produced. We only made nine of our own. All but one dealt with the past. The first was about resistance to the Nazis in our region, La Meuse, in Belgium.
LB La Meuse—a very ancient river.
LD We found a man who took care of the clandestine press. In case of capture by the Germans, he would literally bury all his papers, people’s addresses, underground in a little box. Because he had kept the box he was able to explain it in the film. We made another film with five Polish immigrants when Jaruzelski came to power in 1981 with the support of the Russians. Each person told his story using an object. That’s how we worked, from archives. We never filmed current events.
LB When you went from documentary to drama, were there films that inspired you?
LD Yes, contemporary films by Rossellini, Bresson, Kieslowski, Maurice Pialat.
JPD I’d say Kieslowski and Pialat’s A nos amours, Van Gogh, Loulou, Police, L’enfance nue, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together).
LD Cassavetes too, his tracking shots. We were very affected by Kieslowski’s Decalogue. We never met Kieslowski but felt very close to his films.
LB You’ve made five films since La Promesse in 1996, one every three years, a very regular rhythm. Has your modus operandi evolved over the years?
LD With La Promesse we discovered a working method. We shoot in script sequence: first day, first shot of first scene, and so on. We keep all the sets, so we can reshoot if we don’t like the footage. That’s a bit expensive, especially since light is part of the infrastructure.
JPD We take season and time of day into account when we pick the locations.
LD Secondly, we work with as little technology as possible. A lot of handheld camera on the shoulder.
JPD No tracks or steadicam.
LD But our camera crew has invented devices and ways to keep the camera steady and move it.
LB With a brace?
LD Not usually, but on the last film we used a brace a couple of times. Thirdly, since we’re the producers, we draw up our own production schedule and we do the casting of both professional and non-professional actors. And that takes the time it takes.
JPD We choose the costumes ourselves with the costume designer. And then we rehearse twice. First, about three to four months in advance, Luc and I take turns shooting with our video camera, on set, as soon as we’ve found the locations. We’ll modify the set if necessary with the production designer. And then six weeks before production we rehearse all the scenes with the actors on location with just Luc and me. We do all the movements and blocking. No crew. It’s during those moments, rehearsing with the actors, that the film comes together.
LD We pay the actors to rehearse. In a way, they’re making two films.
LB Is that possible with a small budget?
JPD If we make films for five or six million Euros, that’s where the budget goes.
LD There aren’t very many production costs. We usually find locations from people we know. Our sets are simple. What’s expensive is time.
LB You don’t build sets.
JPD Rarely. We modify existing …
LD For Le Fils (The Son) we did build some sets.
LB I just saw The Kid with a Bike on DVD—there’s a great urgency to the narrative. Maybe that’s the case with all your films. But the urgency in the new film, Two Days One Night, comes not only from the predicament in which Sandra, the lead character finds herself, but also from the fact that she has a deadline. In order to keep her job at a solar energy plant she has to get her co-workers’ support. What led you to this subject?
LD We’ve been mulling this story over for some time. We had read an article on French industry by Bourdieu, the French sociologist, about a worker who had been fired with the consent of every co-worker in his team, in an attempt by management to downsize. This meant that worker solidarity had vanished. The situation was repeated several times in Belgium, Italy and France. The unions were not able to draw on worker solidarity to prevent the person from being laid off. So we thought we could write a story about someone, a woman, who’d been fired in similar circumstances and fought against it. Not only to get her job back, but also to recreate solidarity. Because how can you not feel solidarity with the people you work with? Something’s wrong here. In 2008, 2009, after the economic crash, we took up the idea again but couldn’t decide on the scenario. But two years later, in 2011, when the social consequences of the crash had become extreme, we were compelled to make this film.
LB What’s the unemployment level in Belgium?
LD Thirteen percent. But in our region, around Liege, it’s eighteen percent.
LB At that point the script took off?
JPD Some aspects came quickly: a woman, the time frame of a weekend, and that she has to visit all her co-workers over the weekend to get them to vote for her to keep her job.
LB It’s a tough call for the co-workers because then they’ll lose their bonus.
JPD But we didn’t want Sandra to be alone all the time. So we needed to find someone to help her out, without bringing in a subplot into the main story. Once we decided her husband was the logical choice, the script took off.
LD He could offer her moral support, coach her maybe.
LB In The Kid with the Bike, Samantha (Cecile de France) plays a supportive role as a kind of foster parent for the orphaned kid on weekends, a beautiful role with no psychological explanation whatsoever. Your films are more existential, aren’t they? You take things as they are.
LD For us the question in the script is to figure out how our characters are going to get out of the predicament they’re in. We’re interested in how they deal with it in the present. We don’t like to use a reference to the past to explain present behavior. If you use a psychological explanation, then the viewer will say, “Okay, I get it, this is a such-and-such psychological case, I understand the reasons for this character’s actions. I don’t need to try to figure anything out, I can sit back.” We always try to go against this type of approach.
Liza Béar is a writer and filmmaker, a contributing editor in film at BOMB, and the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007).LD In Two Days One Night, when Sandra goes to visit one of her coworkers, we wanted the spectator to put himself in her place, just as she’s asking each co-worker to do. Or in the co-worker’s place, to be gripped by the tension, as if held in a vice between the two. Not just be a passive observer.
LB It was amazing to see Marion Cotillard’s transformation as Sandra. You normally work with non-professionals and far less well-known actors.
JPD We wanted to work with a star for once and with Marion Cotillard in particular.
LB Because of her portrayal of Edith Piaf?
LD Yes, she moved us very much as Edith Piaf. We wondered what it would be like to work with her. There’s something extraordinary about her gaze—she’s able to be in the moment and elsewhere at the same time.
LB She seems both tough and vulnerable.
LD And we thought that would be good for the character of Sandra, a woman who’s going to go knock on doors but is also a bit spaced out. Little by little she gains a stronger footing in the world. How would we integrate Marion into our filmmaking, and how would she enrich it? Marion wanted it too. For us it was a great working experience, because she’s a terrific actress.
LB How did the other actors relate to her?
JPD It was amazing. Marion came to rehearse every day for five weeks. In the process of working, the three of us—Marion, Luc and I—were able to get rid of any qualms or timidity the other actors might have due to her notoriety, for instance being afraid to make suggestions about ways to play a scene. We were able to create a good working ambiance so that anyone could make suggestions about how to improve the action.
Liza Béar is a writer and filmmaker, a contributing editor in film at BOMB, and the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007).