24 Lies a Second: Sixteen Hungry Frenchmen

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Sixteen Hungry Frenchmen*

What exactly are cinemas for? It's an odd question, I admit, but looking around the fare on offer at my local multiplexes at this current moment in August, there are several animated childrens' films, a couple of very broad comedies, a bonkers philosophical action movie, and a couple of science-fiction adventures. Some of these are very good, very accomplished movies, but the only film around at the moment which honestly feels like it's trying to say something significant about the everyday reality of being alive as an adult human being is Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which has been knocking about for a month or so now. Everything else is largely just cake and jelly.

And is this necessarily a bad thing? Cinema tickets are expensive, after all – and coming from someone who usually goes at least 60 times a year, that's an informed opinion – and why should any sane person pay to be depressed? I don't know. Perhaps it's just me, but sometimes it is rewarding to go and see something a little more challenging and a little more rooted in reality. It seems strange that as often as not, to find this kind of thing you have to go and watch a film in another language.

Which brings us to Two Days, One Night (title en Francais: Deux jours, une nuit), by the Dardennes brothers. I must confess to not being very familiar with les freres in question, but this movie has had glowing reviews and features a lead performance from Marion Cotillard, whom – broadly speaking – I will happily go and watch in anything. This movie finds her very much in the gruelling social-realist genre, but she is as compelling as ever.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a young wife and mother somewhere in suburban France (or possibly Belgium). As the film opens, she has just recovered from a bout of depression and is preparing to return to her job in a local factory – but a phone-call from a colleague changes all that. In her absence the boss has decided her presence is not strictly necessary, and offered the rest of the workforce a choice: either they can have her back, or they can receive their annual bonus. Her colleagues have decided they would rather have the money and Sandra is out of a job.

However, due to some irregularities in the original vote, it is due to be restaged the following Monday, and if Sandra can persuade enough of her colleagues to change their minds, she may yet keep her job. The film opens on Friday afternoon, and covers the intervening weekend and the morning of the vote itself (hence the title).

As you can probably imagine, there aren't a lot of laughs in this one: the film follows Sandra as she treks around the flats and houses of her various co-workers, pleading with them to reconsider their decision when the second vote is taken. The responses she meets vary considerable: some are apologetic, others sympathetic, some guilt-stricken – one of her visits results in violence. The story of the film is really that of how Sandra herself copes with and reacts to these responses – she is elated in those moments when she finds someone prepared to listen, more often crushed when understanding is not forthcoming.

It is another brilliant performance from Cotillard, who retains her almost uncanny ability to project raw human feeling without seeming at all showy or self-conscious. From the very beginning of the film, Sandra is clearly an ordinary woman having serious difficulty in keeping things together, and this only gets worse as the film proceeds – the movie ends up skirting some very dark places before its conclusion.

On the face of it, this is just a personal and rather bleak story, but it seems to me to be deeply informed by the realities of life in France these days – which I'm sure are not that different from those of life in the UK, or many other places in Europe. You could easily imagine Ken Loach knocking out a similar film in English, with the same ultra-realistic and understated, but utterly compelling approach.

Nearly everyone is struggling for money, with many people taking on second jobs – legally or not – in order to make ends meet. The resulting pressure is causing the basic fabric of decent society to break down: selfishness is largely supplanting compassion and understanding for many people, while others find themselves horribly conflicted: one of Sandra's colleagues tells her, weeping, that he hopes she succeeds, even though he knows that it will be a catastrophe for him if she does.

The directors don't make explicit political points, although the abdication of responsibility by Sandra's boss is made clear, and he and Sandra's bullying foreman are the least sympathetically-presented characters. The film is more about the effects of the system on vulnerable human lives, and the importance of relationships and society in making life worth living – there are moments of real joy in this film, even such simple ones as Sandra and a couple of friends singing along to the radio together (Fabrizio Rongione gives immaculate support as Cotillard's husband).

This is a profoundly moving and gripping film, that doesn't conclude in the way you may be imagining (nor the other way, either). There is real darkness in it, but also real light and a sense of humanity: also that of a woman going through an ordeal and finding herself made only stronger by it. Realistic and serious this film may be, but it's also very affirming in its own way, and worth watching just for Marion Cotillard's performance.

*Okay, so perhaps they are Belgian, and some of them are definitely women, but that doesn't help the joke much.

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