The Dardenne Brothers on Marion Cotillard ‘Disappearing’ Into ‘Two Days, One Night’

Dardenne Brothers
Catherine Ledner for Variety

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are effusive talkers on any number of subjects, but good luck getting them to shut up about the best movie they’ve seen recently — a marvel of beautifully observed realism, carefully grounded in the quotidian details of working-class life, and featuring an outstanding big-screen debut by a young actor with no formal training.

The picture that has the Belgian brothers so enraptured is “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s much-acclaimed, 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age epic.

“It’s the first film I’ve seen in a very, very long time where the characters are human beings, and they disappear into the fabric of the film. They’re just people,” says Jean-Pierre, 63.

“It’s about ordinary existence, ordinary life,” continues Luc, 60, generally the more loquacious of the two. “(The filmmaker) trusts mundane existence and allows it to exist.”

If the Dardennes were less inclined toward modesty, they might just as well be describing one of their own movies, in which the raw materials of everyday reality regularly become the stuff of morally wrenching, fiercely unsentimental drama.

At this point in their nearly 40-year career, during which they have twice won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (for 1999’s “Rosetta” and 2005’s “L’enfant”), the Dardennes have long cemented their standing among the most revered and influential figures in world cinema. Their filmmaking signature — an unstinting realism signified by a handheld camera and a fascination with hard-scrabble lives — can be seen in the grotty new strain of British kitchen-sink melodrama practiced by the likes of Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows, and also in the socially conscious suspense thrillers of China’s Li Yang. Remarkably, their influence has been most pronounced in a recent wave of American indies as different as Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson,” and Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop.”

Catherine Ledner for Variety

Yet while many have appropriated the Dardennes’ formal devices, few have approached their daunting consistency. Starting with their 1996 breakthrough feature, “La Promesse,” and continuing with this year’s “Two Days, One Night” (which begins an awards-qualifying U.S. run Dec. 24 through IFC’s Sundance Selects), they have made seven tense, engrossing character studies that also function as thrillers of conscience. Formally spare and informed by their nearly 20 years of documentary filmmaking experience, these narratives are steeped in the often-cruel­ deprivations of the material world, yet also touched by flickers of grace and redemption that hover somewhere between the secular and the divine.

In that respect, the Dardennes have become standard-bearers for a sort of emotional and aesthetic purity that harks back to the masterworks of Robert Bresson, a fellow patron saint of European cinema to whom they are often likened. Yet such lofty comparisons can obscure the fact that they are shrewd, even calculating dramatists at heart: Purged of art-film longueurs, their life-or-death narratives unfold in a swift, restless present tense, spurred along by hairpin twists and startling reversals of character.

“L’enfant,” about a callous drifter who sells his newborn child on the black market, culminates in a motorcycle chase scene that rivals any studio-made action sequence for sheer intensity, while “Lorna’s Silence” (2008), set among the immigrant population of the Belgian capital of Liege, features an offscreen murder that is all the more startling and tragic for being so scrupulously foreshadowed. “The Son” (2002), perhaps their crowning achievement, tells the story of a man who comes face-to-face with his child’s killer, taking on the weight of a genuine moral mystery: Until the final scenes, we’re not sure if we’re watching a parable of Christian forgiveness, a revenge thriller or some mysterious fusion of both.

Neorealist titans though they may be, the Dardennes are also unabashed entertainers — a fact that has perhaps never been clearer than in their latest feature, which reaffirms their humanist bent even as it quietly dismantles some of the rules that have governed their work. Known for discovering such talented newcomers as Emilie Dequenne, Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois­ and Arta Dobroshi, the brothers broke with tradition in 2011 by casting well-known Gallic actress Cecile de France in “The Kid With a Bike.” They’ve taken an even bigger artistic risk in tapping Marion Cotillard to play a working-class wife and mother on the brink of losing her job in “Two Days, One Night.”

Sitting down with Variety at the Sunset Towers Hotel in West Hollywood, following the film’s AFI Fest premiere, the Dardennes concede that they were curious to see how well an Oscar-winning glamour icon could melt into the backdrop of Seraing, the industrial port town where nearly all their films are set.

“The gamble, for us, was really to see how we could integrate a star — to see what she could bring and how she could enrich our family,” Jean-Pierre says.

“Of course,” Luc adds, “it’s a bonus if you have a star, because maybe she’s going to reach a greater public and bring attention to the work. But she really had to disappear into the film. That was our greatest challenge.”

When the Dardennes first approached Cotillard on the set of Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” (which they co-produced), they had an entirely different project in mind, in which the actress would play a doctor. But when that script didn’t come together, their thoughts turned to another character, Sandra, who “started to poke her head out of the closet” of their imagination, where they had consigned her for nearly a decade. The brothers’ back-and-forth discussions led to a finished screenplay (written, as is their custom, primarily by Luc) which they presented to Cotillard, who accepted the role without hesitation.

Catherine Ledner for Variety

“I was surprised, but very excited, too,” says Cotillard, describing the prospect of working with the Dardennes as “a dream that I didn’t allow myself to have, because I knew it couldn’t happen. They represented the unreachable.”

In the film, Cotillard’s Sandra has just emerged from a long depression to learn that she will soon be dismissed from the factory where she works, unless she can persuade nine of her 16 colleagues to sacrifice their bonuses to keep her on. Rooted in a real-life story the Dardennes heard about years ago, one made freshly relevant in the wake of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis and the job cuts that followed in its wake, Sandra’s door-to-door journey raises essential questions about workers’ rights and solidarity that will come as little surprise to viewers familiar with the directors’ prior films.

But as ever with the Dardennes, the underlying considerations are simply those of basic human empathy and compassion — something they extend to Sandra as well as to the co-workers we see her speaking with. A true ensemble piece, the movie required Cotillard to be vividly authentic not only in her solo scenes, but also in her brief yet crucial interactions with her fellow cast members, many of whom had never acted in a film before.

“For the other actors, when they were first working with Marion, there was an intimidation factor,” Jean-Pierre says. “And she really worked to completely denude herself (emotionally), so that there would be a rapport between them. She stripped herself down to bare essentials.”

Crucial to the success of the experiment was Cotillard’s willingness to throw herself into the Dardennes’ signature five-week rehearsal process — an essential preparation period that at times felt closer to live theater than to cinema. The intensity didn’t let up when filming began: Because the Dardennes rely on long, unbroken shots, in which the camera often seems to be racing to keep up with the characters, the production required as many as 50 to 100 takes per scene to ensure that editor Marie-Helene Dozo had enough to work with.

“Marion said, ‘Do with me whatever you want,’” Luc says. “It’s easy for a lot of actors to say that, but it’s a lot harder for them to keep their word. She just fell into the process with us.”

Cotillard admits she reached a point of fatigue when the Dardennes required her to repeatedly perform a deceptively simple series of actions: Get out of bed, begin to put on her shoes, and burst into tears at the moment when she put on her right shoe. In a script that offered little explicit insight into the character’s depression, such moments, when the anguish would well up suddenly and without explanation, were crucial to providing a glimpse of Sandra’s demons.

“I never questioned what they were asking. I admire their work so much, and I know that it takes a lot of work to reach this level of truth,” Cotillard says. “They’re very demanding, but they’re not manipulative. Some directors will do 50 takes when they already have what they want. With the Dardennes, I always knew that if I had to do it again, there was a reason.”

While “Two Days, One Night” was roundly acclaimed at Cannes last May, not all critics were sold on the filmmakers’ gamble. Notably, the picture received the ecumenical prize but was the first of the brothers’ features to emerge without an accolade from the main jury.

Yet the movie is in line for a hefty consolation prize should it garner attention from the Academy. While “The Kid With a Bike” was surprisingly passed over for foreign-language Oscar consideration when Belgium opted to submit Michael Roskam’s “Bullhead” that year, “Two Days, One Night” has received the nation’s official bid, and Cotillard is even considered a dark-horse contender for best actress. (She recently won that prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, recognizing her work in both the Dardennes’ film and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”)

Whether her casting strikes the Dardennes’ longtime admirers as a fascinating experiment or a concession to the mainstream, it’s complemented by the story’s borderline schematic, unusually quest-driven structure, which subtly shifts the duo’s brand of realism into a grand tradition of classical storytelling: It’s possible to see “Two Days, One Night,” with its step-by-step narrative and determined heroine, as a sly, socialist reworking of “Mildred Pierce” by way of “12 Angry Men.” At the very least, it’s evidence that the brothers are slyly evolving their process — ostensibly what was asked of them by the critics who have taken them to task over the years for the boringly predictable quality of their output.

As for where this evolution leads them next, the Dardennes are keeping mum for now, although they do note that they haven’t given up on the doctor role they once floated as a possibility for Cotillard.

“We’ve been thinking about this doctor for seven, eight years,” Luc says. “And we’re going to shoot in Seraing.”