Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (Christine Plenus)

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (Christine Plenus)

Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were definitely overlooked, if not slighted, by the awards jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, coming away empty handed, perhaps because the directing team has previously won so many awards there and they don’t break thematic or narrative ground in the new Two Days, One Night. The long takes and the medium close-ups that rigidly follow the ensemble are familiar, but good is good, and it isn’t breaking news that the duo has made another steadily absorbing film, considering their body of work (The Kid with the Bike).

The only departure here is that the directors team with a bona fide international movie star, Marion Cotillard, subtly anxious and never better. It’s an effortless collaboration, and the actress blends into their working-class Belgium town of Seraing. Last year at Cannes, Cotillard’s fragility was in overdrive in James Grey’s The Immigrant, where she played a fallen woman whom even Lillian Gish would have considered too melodramatic. Cotillard strikes the right balance here between vulnerability and hardheaded soberness—no makeup, no artifice. If Belgium’s selection committee is smart, they will submit this for the best foreign language film, and having a star like Cotillard will only enhance the film’s visibility.

At first, the movie’s prospects aren’t promising. The film opens with Sandra (Cotillard) being awakened from a nap, and more than once during the course of the drama, she will make a run for her bed; she goes to sleep by 7 pm. But the slack tone picks up immediately when she receives a call from a coworker, telling her she must fight for her job.

She’s been away from work since a breakdown, and in her absence, her boss has approved of a secret ballot for the following Monday morning: the workers of her solar panel company will either vote for Sandra to keep her job or for everyone to receive bonuses of 1,000 euros. (She was about to return when she found out she was about to be laid off. No wonder she’s depressed.) If Sandra loses her job, she, her husband, and their two kids will go back to public housing. Spurred on by her husband, Sandra has the weekend to convince her colleagues to vote against their own self-interest. So far, only two would vote in her favor.

Each encounter with a co-worker has its own tone. They have their own agendas, and all react differently when Sandra knocks on their door unannounced. (Only one flatly refuses to talk to her.) Additionally, the directors have cast a wide variety of actors, diverse in almost any way imaginable.

The 90 minutes fleetingly flow by as the story line becomes far from a black-and-white struggle of an underdog. Sandra’s a mess. It’s more than implied that she’s not 100 percent ready to return to work—she pops Xanax as if they were breathe mints. The characters are all recognizably ordinary, but the only one who comes across as unrealistic is husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who encourages and protects his wife while taking care of the kids, even concealing his anger and frustration when Sandra does something really dangerous. Call the Vatican, he’s ready for sainthood.

A scene from Leviathan (Cannes Film Festival)

A scene from Leviathan (Cannes Film Festival)

Another highlight was Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s vodka-infused Leviathan, which won an award for its bitterly sardonic screenplay. Three years ago, he made Elena, a slow-burning thriller about a mother who will do anything for her layabout son. It was a pungent depiction of the clash between the old Soviet mentality and the new go-go-go consumerism. In many ways, his latest film is just as bleak a snapshot of Russian mores, where his Mr. Smith gets flattened by the system, becoming road kill.

The escalating battle of wills begins beautifully enough, with shots of giant whale bones scattered on a desolate, rocky beach (yup, environment is character), accompanied by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass. Unlike other films that offer a snapshot of contemporary history, this feels immediate and urgent, in addition to being a trenchant and tough-minded tragedy. It’s depressing, but with such a believable cast, it’s oddly uplifting.

Mechanic Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) fights City Hall for his home, a ramshackle house (with an outhouse for a bathroom) that has been claimed by the local government under the legal equivalent of public domain. Kolia lives here with his beautiful younger wife, who lingers in the background like a specter, and their young son. He enlists the aid of an old army buddy, now a Moscow lawyer, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, in his uphill court battle.

To no one’s shock, Kolia loses his case. The judge spews out the ruling in torrent of facts in a ludicrously long-winded diatribe. Dima doesn’t intend on appealing but instead takes another approach, blackmail. In a private meeting, he presents the mayor with a folder full of the politico’s misdeeds. Apparently, Dima has connections in Moscow.

Unbeknownst to him, though, Dima has taken on the wrong guy. The big player town isn’t just the mayor, who has his fingers in all sorts of pies, but the Russian Orthodox Church. “All power comes from God,” and therefore the church, according to the village priest, who advises the mayor to take direct action against Kolia and Dima. It becomes very clear what devouring, lurking entity the title refers to; it’s no accident that the most famous Russian dissidents (at least in the West) are seen briefly at one point on television: the punk band Pussy Riot, who were held in prison for a performing a prank in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012.

At age 83, Jean-Luc Godard finally won an award at Cannes, on his ninth try. Much has been made over his sharing the Grand Jury prize with Canada’s 25-year-old boy wonder Xavier Dolan, for the hothouse drama Mommy. Godard deserved the praise, especially from bleary-eyed, jetlagged filmgoers. His Goodbye to Language has just the right running time, 70 minutes. Audiences can take the film’s title literally and ignore its Jacques Derrida-quoting and voluptuous voice-overs or the philosophizing by its two interchangeable couples, and instead allow the bombard of the kaleidoscopic images to wash over them. For every viewer, there’s probably a different and divergent message.

After an overuse of 3D effects that has propped up more than one run-of-the-mill movie, it’s something of a miracle that a filmmaker still has the capacity to wow an audience with the aid of those bulky glasses: Godard’s use of the technique well deserved the repeated applause for the visual trick where the left eye sees a different scene from the right eye, until one character crosses the frame and the two scenes become one. Even the aspect ratio changes, again to the cheers of the audience. (This is something else Godard shares with the upstart Dolan; the aspect ratio also alters in Mommy when a rambunctious teen pushes the edges of the screen further apart from the old-time 1:33 ratio to widescreen. It was also met with enthusiasm.)

Goodbye might make converts of those who have written off Godard as having gotten lost in his wonky ways. For this film, he’s a showman, who makes a star of his dog Roxy, who, sadly, did not win the prestigious Palm Dog Award. (And this is possibly the only time that Jean Arthur and Ruth Chatterton have ever appeared together.)

However, other directors stumbled in the Cannes competition, none more so than Michel Havanavicius of the Oscar-winning The Artist for The Search. After this, his carte blanche has expired. The film is loosely inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film of the same name, set in in postwar Germany. Hazanavicius moves the refugee drama to 1999, during the war in Chechnya, which the film portrays as a forgotten conflict. Maybe, but many American news agencies extensively covered it at the time.

Shot in an unvaried desaturated palette (which has become such a cliché after Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), the two-and-a-half hour film ploddingly spells out two story lines. First, a young boy, Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamatsuevi), witnesses his parents’ senseless death by two Russian militia, one of whom grandstands for an unseen cameraman (“Welcome to the biggest shit hole on earth.”). Hadji flees his village with his baby brother, leaving behind his older sister, and places the infant on the doorstep of neighbors before crossing the border to a refugee camp. In the second thread, a teenaged Russian, Kolia (Maxim Emelianov), is busted for possession, and instead of serving jail time, he takes the only option: the Russian army. After a violent Full Metal Jacket–type training, he’s sent to the front, terrified and with an itchy trigger finger.

Human rights advocate Carol (Bérénice Bejo, severely stiff in a mostly English speaking role) notices Hadji alone on the streets. She takes him in temporarily, but the traumatized and unsure Haji doesn’t let down his guard—until he dances with Carol to the Bee Gees. The film scores a point by withholding the saccharine, but Carol and Hadji’s slow-building relationship matches the pace and the muted cinematography.

The film also stars Annette Bening, in exhaustive professorial mode, spouting self-righteous monologues as a Red Cross official. Both she and Bejo exchange talking points instead of dialogue. Because the cast features two internationally known actors, the drama will likely be picked up for American distribution. If so, an additional edit could easily trim 45 minutes of padding without losing the essentials. For example, during Hadji’s trek in the misty mountains with his baby brother, he hides in a ditch from a passing Russian tank. The camera lingers on his face, waiting for the tears to spill, though the well-informed audience, having seen the slaughter of his parents, already can guess how he feels.

The film’s only arresting aspect is its takedown of the Russian military: homophobic, racist, xenophobic, and barbaric. Had it been made by an American director, it would immediately face criticisms of having a Cold War mentality, portraying Russia as the imperialist heavy.

Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for his gripping and intimate historical epic The Wind That Shakes the Barley. He returns to the competition for the 12th time, the most of any director in the festival’s history, with Jimmy’s Hall, which may or may not be his last film.

According to Loach, his new film “sits side by side” with the previous, though far better, film. It portrays a sepia-toned slice of Irish life after the founding of the Republic and centers on the deportation of James Grafton, the only individual to be expelled from that country without due process. Producer Rebecca O’Brien stated at the press conference that there was little to go on regarding the legalities, since so much of the court record has disappeared, but what the script has come up with is obvious, predictable, and ham-handed, from the politics to the surreptitious romance between Jimmy and an old flame.

Grafton (Barry Ward) returns to Ireland after living 12 years in New York City. Upon reuniting with his mother, he reopens a volunteer-run community center, where the villagers discuss Yeats, learn Gaelic, and pick up the latest dance moves from Manhattan (reinforcing, unfortunately, the notion that white guys can’t dance). His opponent: the village warlord, er, Father Sheridan (played by frosty-eyed Jim Norton), who declares that only the church educates, so the white-haired father compiles a blacklist of the town’s citizens as they enter the verboten hall; boycott of their businesses to follow. There are vibrant issues here, but Paul Laverty’s screenplay never gives the characters more than one dimension. They’re stifled as debating points.

By no means were the best works limited to those in the festival’s official competition—viewers would likely become depressed if they were only limited to this year’s 18 films. Notably, Un Certain Regard, a section devoted to “original and different works,” featured the film with perhaps the best written screenplay.

The moment before a near disaster (and the drama) ignites in Turist (Force Majuere) (Cannes Film Festival)

The moment before the near disaster in Force Majeure (Cannes Film Festival)

Three years ago, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund’s Play premiered at Cannes. It won acclaim, but it never saw the light of day in United States outside of the festival circuit. No wonder; it bluntly dealt with race, class, and crime. His follow-up, Force Majeure, is nowhere as controversial, but this insightful excavation of a husband and wife is a ready post-screening argument-starter. These scenes of a marriage are more like a boxing match, with an upper-middle-class couple who take no prisoners. In a sly inversion of traditional gender roles, the man takes on the more passive aggressive and put-upon role, while his wife verbally strikes first.

This scenario has been played out before in the art house: one gesture betrays and reveals the instincts of one spouse, exposing a fault line. Just a few years ago, a twentysomething couple faced a similar roadblock. In Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, Gael García Bernal flinches and hides behind his girlfriend while held at gunpoint in the Republic of Georgia’s hinterlands. That film suggests the tensions between its traveling lovebirds bubbling under the surface. In Force Majeure, the Swedes don’t hold back; the dirty laundry is aired out for all to see and smell.

Both in their waning thirties, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are vacationing in the French Alps with their pre-adolescent son and daughter (who become wide-eyed observers to their parents’ imploding relationship). He and Ebba come across as a typical couple too complacent in their routine, brushing their teeth (with electric toothbrushes, naturally) in silence or awkwardly posing for a family photograph in the opening scene—the unseen photographer has to direct the two to have some sort of physical contact.

During an outdoor lunch on a restaurant terrace, the family watches, oohing and awing, as a controlled avalanche careens down the mountain. But the landslide doesn’t stop, and the debris continues downward until mist and debris shroud the diners, whitening out the screen. Nothing can be heard but the screams and shouts of the children and Ebba, all calling out for Tomas, who doesn’t answer. He has already left the scene with his gloves and iPhone.

Elba confronts her husband about his running off, though not until they are having dinner with another couple. The more she sips her wine, the more her scorn pours out. He won’t admit to running away, and she won’t drop it. The tension rises, as does the acrimony, and both come to life when they go for the jugular. Although they would hate to admit it, each relishes putting the other in a corner.

If they were the topic of Good Housekeeping’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved” series from back in the day, the answer would be a resounding no. And right when you think the bickering has been played out, the director has a final vertigo-inducing showdown. At its conclusion, this biting film may unsettle those expecting equal time: Tomas and Ebba each have a say, but only one has the last (self-righteous) smirk.