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Film & Music: FOR A FEW EUROS MORE: The Dardennes' new film is a 'Belgian western' starring Marion Cotillard. Could the arthouse favourites finally strike gold? Ryan Gilbey meets them

August 8, 2014

Ryan Gilbey



Only seven film-makers in the history of Cannes have walked off with the Palme d'Or twice, and the Dardenne brothers are two of them. Their most recent win was nine years ago for The Child, the wrenching tale of a young father who sells his newborn baby. Before that, grim coming-of-age story Rosetta gave them their first gold, as well as their international breakthrough, in 1999. When I meet Jean-Pierre (who is 63) and Luc (a mere nipper at 60) in a hotel in Paris, it is a few weeks before this year's festival, where their latest picture, Two Days, One Night, will compete - though ultimately fail - to win a record-breaking third.

The new movie marks a partial return to the thematic territory of Rosetta, which concerned a teenage girl scrabbling around for menial jobs. The workplace is once again a battleground: Marion Cotillard's Sandra, a lowly grunt at a solar-panel factory, is faced with redundancy unless she can persuade the majority of her 16 co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses of euros 1,000. Keeping herself in employment becomes a full-time job. The film is as dogged as she is, following her around from one doorstep to another as she implores each colleague to choose unity and compassion over personal advantage. But these are struggling workers with families, not fat cats and CEOs, and the outcome is never certain, even in the tense moments before the secret ballot.

Announcing the film's place in the main competition at Cannes, festival director Thierry Fremaux described it as "a Belgian western". It is not a tag that the brothers seem entirely happy with at first. Yes, they will concede that it is set, like all their work, in Belgium - specifically, the industrial suburb of Seraing, where they were born. "And it's true you could call our protagonist a cowgirl," offers Luc via a translator. "She is helped by her deputy, in this case her husband, and through a series of duels she gets to the final showdown." He almost seems to be warming to the idea now. "So, yes, I can accept that," he says, finally. I offer some evidence of my own: in the first scene, a child's drawing of a horse is glimpsed on the wall. The brothers smile and nod approvingly; I feel I could be in line for a gold star - or a sheriff's badge. Jean-Pierre chips in with another idea: "Perhaps Thierry was referring to that specific branch of the economic world where the word 'cowboy' is used to describe ruthless people who take the money and then flee without finishing the job." That settles it: the movie is a western after all. Call it For a Few Euros More.

One can understand why Jane Campion and her Cannes jury did not deem the film worthy of prizes: it is both slighter and more manipulative than much of the brothers' finest work. But then the same could be said of their previous film, The Kid with a Bike, and look what happened to that: it ended up being their biggest box-office success to date.

Audiences clearly prefer the Dardennes' films to accentuate the positive and go easy on the austerity. The presence in Two Days, One Night of Cotillard as Sandra is guaranteed to make it their most widely seen film yet. Even - if the word is not taboo in their highfalutin circles - a hit.

This is the first time that the brothers have cast an international A-list star, and the hazards were not lost on them. "Oui. It is a risk," says Luc. "But this was also the beauty and the challenge of it, for us and for Marion. What we wondered in the beginning was whether she could be part of the same family as everyone else on the film. A star comes with his or her own baggage, of stardom and success. Very quickly, though, we saw that she was no longer Marion Cotillard. She was Sandra." This they put down partly to their lengthy rehearsal periods. "We had Marion for a month before shooting began and that was vital," notes Jean-Pierre. "Our task was to let her be part of the adventure and for her not to feel the weight of her past - to be as naked as possible, and just to be."

Those rehearsals, he points out, allow the actors to "dare to be ridiculous". And not only them. "We have to make mistakes too. To say silly things in front of the actors. To be free. Without this mutual trust, the actors would tend to hide themselves. Rehearsals are important for everyone to drop all defences. We have our defence mechanisms too but we need to get rid of them each time."

The Dardennes also have their conventions and preoccupations, though these are not so easily shrugged off. Their roots are in documentary film-making. But starting in 1996 with The Promise (which they regard as the true beginning of their fiction film-making career after two little-seen features that they have all but disowned), the brothers established a template every bit as formulaic and comforting as genre cinema. The day they forsake handheld camerawork, social realism, disenfranchised outcasts and the glum, peeling streets of Seraing will be the same day that Michael Bay discovers subtlety, or Woody Allen uses a multicoloured font for his opening credits. They seem so insulated within their own species of cinema that it comes as quite a shock in The Kid with a Bike when a boy invites his friend to see a film because "it's in 3D and it'll be fun". I wonder if they go to the cinema, and whether they see their own work in opposition to the commercial. "We do go and see many films," says Luc. "All kinds. But when we make our own films, we're just looking for something we want to tell - we're never working against something else."

Looking for those stories takes time. It can't be rushed. In the past, the brothers have likened themselves to cows: they need to graze. And despite its pertinence to a world still destabilised by the economic crisis of six years ago, the grazing period of Two Days, One Night ran to several thousands of days, several thousands of nights.

"We had thought for 10 years about a woman facing this situation," Luc explains. "But we were never able to develop it. The breakthrough came when we thought of Manu, her husband, as a kind of coach to guide and encourage her. That's what made Sandra's story take off."

Central to the film is the idea of validation through work, a precarious concept in an era of widespread unemployment. "If you don't have a job, you are made to feel like an outcast from your community," Jean-Pierre says. "Possibly in the future people will find another way to be part of the community that is not connected to work but for now that is where meaning lies. From an anthropological point of view, that is how mankind feels a sense of belonging." And how do the Dardennes themselves regard their own work and the function it plays in their lives? "We believe it is important to do our work well," Luc replies. "This is why we like to rehearse for such a long time. To do it thoroughly. Otherwise you are like a shoemaker who doesn't attach the sole correctly, and the shoe doesn't last more than a couple of days. If you do your work well, you get pleasure. We want to be good craftsmen. We like to prepare the shoe properly."

Two Days, One Night is released on 22 August

Left: Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. Below: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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