Two Days, One Night can be a very long time. In Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new film of that name, it is long enough for the viewer and the central character Sandra to work through some pretty harsh realities. For starters, sometimes life hands you a raw deal. Sandra, as played by the wonderful Marion Cotillard, has been off work with depression, and just as she is ready to come back her coworkers are given a choice – let Sandra return and you don’t get a year-end bonus this year, or vote to lay her off and you do.
Right away, this naturally sets up a moral game of “what would you do?” As one coworker puts it, the bonus is big enough to pay gas and electric bills for an entire year. But the beauty of the Dardennes is that they elevate the story beyond that to a more universal exploration of, not black and white or right and wrong, but how to be human when everything is grey. The nature of Sandra’s crisis moves from the external to the internal, until she is battling her own self, and doomed to somehow come out losing.
The other two films today demonstrate the stunning range of styles, formats and approaches a filmmaker can take to explore the human condition. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep couldn’t be more different in style. Hong uses a lightweight concept: a woman reading the letters a friend wrote her, but in the wrong order, to piece together the recent events of his life. The letters come to life one by one, in hilarious fashion, and as is common with Hong there is much drinking and merriment.
Ceylan’s film is the polar opposite: slow, contemplative, linear but without real beginnings or ends. Any drinking or merriment in Winter Sleep comes tinged with bile and humiliation. But both filmmakers, working at the top of their game, know that the actions on the screen are but a gateway into greater things.
Ceylan goes deep, I’m talking Bergman deep, into the darkness that can rot a relationship from the inside out. All of the characters in Winter Sleep share history and longstanding resentments. Few of these, if any, are really resolved by the end because resolving them isn’t the point, but it’s rather for the viewer to find himself in each fight and argument, and to think about his own strengths and weaknesses.
Hong would like you to think he doesn’t care about such heavy things, but he absolutely does; he simply comes at his stories from a uniquely positive angle. Film festivals are filled with movies trying to make you feel guilt, anger and shame. Hong sometimes seems to stand alone on being fine with making you feel great, but oh, along the way let’s touch on Japan and Korea’s ugly history, gossip, love, happiness, and most importantly friendship.
Both films, indeed all three today, were a master class in the importance of finding your unique voice as a filmmaker and then connecting to the viewer with that voice. Hong, Ceylan and the Dardennes are nothing alike, but each captures aspects of what it means to be human in a way that exemplifies why cinema is such a wonderful art form.