WORKING WOMEN: Three films at AFI–Two Days, One Night, The Clouds of Sils Maria and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem


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Warning: SPOILERS
two days oneI have been attending the AFI film festival and have seen three films with female leads and have noticed a major difference between movies from other countries and those made in the U.S. when it comes to how we treat our actresses.
In the U.S., Marion Cottilard is made to play second fiddle to Johnny Depp, Daniel Day Lewis and Leonard DiCaprio, but on her home continent, two of the top European filmmakers actually built a whole movie around her.
In the U.S., Juliet Binoche is relegated to second tier status after a gigantic lizard goes on the rampage and Kristin Stewart is stuck in ridiculous teen angst films and even more ridiculous, over the top Hollywood blockbusters, but in Europe the two are allowed to play opposite each other in roles with depths most American actresses only dream of.
And in the U.S., when it comes to a study of a marriage, we have the misogynistic Gone Girl, with a psychotic wife who will do anything to punish her husband, even set him up for her own murder (while killing herself, no less), while from Israel, we have a film in which a woman desperately tries to get a divorce from a court that is almost determined to keep her in her place and not let her have it.
Prevailing wisdom is that this is one of the weakest years for actresses and the air is filled with panic as voters try to find five females to fill the slots for the Oscar noms for this year.
But prevailing wisdom always seems to leave out the pertinent proviso that this is really only true for the U.S.

 

Read the following reviews and weep at our inability to create worthy roles for half the population.

 

two days twoIn the 1957 drama, 12 Angry Men, a lone jury member (Henry Fonda, at his Henry Fondaish) fights against the too fast guilty verdicts of his fellow jurists and slowly convinces them one by one that the youth on trial might actually be innocent.

 

I thought of this film as I was watching the Dardenne brothers’ (Jean-Pierre and Luc, co-writers and co-directors) new film 2 Days, One Night, about Sandra, a worker put into an outrageous situation.

 

Sandra had taken time off due to a paralyzing bout with depression and has now returned to work. But in her absence, the owner of the company has realized that he can run the place just fine with one less employee. But instead of straight out firing someone, the owner tells Sandra’s fellow workers that they have a choice: they can have a bonus or Sandra can keep her job, but not both.

 

If Sandra stays, their bonuses go.

 

And the boss, who seems to be without even one, has put the ball in their park. In one of the most cowardly decisions an owner has ever made, he refuses to make one himself and puts it all on them, thus making horrible bosses look like mildly annoying bosses in comparison.

 

They vote and Sandra is out. But Sandra’s supporters convince the boss to take a second ballot come Monday, and now Sandra has only two days and one night to convince her fellow workers to forgo their bonuses and let her keep her job. And like Henry Fonda’s characters, she has to go one by one and try to change enough minds to get a majority.

 

Once the story really gets going, when Sandra decides to visit her fellow workers, there is something emotionally riveting about the story. It’s such an overwhelmingly humiliating situation to be put in, not just for Sandra, but also for the fellow workers who have to give reasons for voting against her. Even when the workers agree to support her, you just feel incredible anger at the situation every one of them has been put in.

 

Each scene is also a mini story in itself as we parade through a cross-section of the modern day working class, from immigrants trying to hang on; to workers having to take second jobs “on the black” (what we call taking money under the table); to dysfunctional father/son, husband/wife relationships.

 

Everybody has their reasons. Even for the ones who won’t change their vote, with maybe one exception, you can’t get angry at them. They didn’t put themselves in the situation they are in, they didn’t deal the stacked deck, but they have to play their hands anyway.

 

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra and gives a deeply empathetic performance. She has these huge, Jeanne Moreau eyes and a fragile demeanor that arouses instant sympathy from the viewer. She’s a David going against the Goliath, but in this version of the story doesn’t defeat the giant, but doesn’t exactly lose to him either.

 

The Dardenne brothers have had an amazing run of a career.   Since coming to international attention (and by that, I mean attention in the U.S., which is sometimes the last place to garner attention for an artist, though most of us here seem to think attention doesn’t count until we deign to give it) with La Promesse in 1996, they have made seven features, and have yet to make a bad one.

 

They all have a similar through line. A character is put into a difficult, if not almost impossible, moral quandary, and the suspense is whether they will make the right decision. I hate to go overboard and sound a bit too, too, but I always find something spiritually fulfilling about their movies, a deep connection to the human condition that so often is lacking from movies made in the U.S.

 

And they are one of the few filmmakers who actually makes movies about the difficulties facing the working class, a group in the U.S. that we often tend to find unimportant and annoying.

 

I do think that perhaps in their last two films (The Kid with a Bike and now Two Days, One Night), they may be mellowing a bit. They are not quite as harsh in their view of life as they once were and their stories often work out a bit less downbeat than their first ones (putting me in mind, unfairly I’d have to say, but, still, I can’t help it, of the scene from Woody Allen’s movie Stardust Memories where the aliens tell the beleaguered director they prefer his earlier, funnier films).

 

But Two Days, One Night is still a powerful indictment of how fragile the worker’s existence is and how little power one often has and then how much power we truly do have.

 

It’s Belgium’s official entry in the foreign language film category at the Academy Awards.

 

cloudsWhen the Twilight franchise hit the theaters (which I’ve only been able to watch a few minutes at a time without cringing and changing the channel—I felt if I kept watching, what might happen to me is what happened to the Nazis when they opened the ark of the covenant), I never thought the worst aspect of the films were the films themselves.

 

For me, the real negative impact on the art of filmmaking for years to come was making such successes of the leads Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart that, even as awful as they were in their attempts to act, we would be stuck with them playing leads in movies for eons to come (hey, it happened with Love Story; I mean, it took a long time to stop Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw from being able to open a film).

 

Well, maybe hell has frozen over and I might have to eat crow, if not my hat, and fall on my knees and beg forgiveness. I’m not quite ready to do that, but after seeing Pattinson in The Rover and now Kristen Stewart in the new drama The Clouds of Sils Maria, I may have to seriously reconsider my view of both thespians.

 

The key, though, may be that in both movies, the filmmaker did whatever they could to take both performers as far away from their young heart throb personas as they could. In the Rover, Pattinson was transformed into a dirty shell of man decked out with more tics than most method actors would dare to use, and was almost unrecognizable.

 

In …Sils Maria, Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant to international movie star Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche). Donning geek glasses and bulky clothes and downplaying her natural good looks, she seems, like Pattinson, to completely disappear into her role.

 

The Clouds of Sils Maria is the latest offering from one of France’s finest writer/directors, Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Something in the Air, Summer Hours). It’s about an actress, said Maria, reaching middle age who has been offered a part in the revival of a play she starred in some twenty years earlier, a melodrama about a businesswoman destroyed by her attraction to an 18-year old female secretary.

 

However, this time she is asked to play the older woman.

 

Surprisingly, the dilemma for Maria is not the issue of playing a character who is in her 40’s. She seems long reconciled to getting older. Her dilemma is that she isn’t sure the play has withstood the test of time and, at least for her, the only interesting part has always been the 18-year old.

 

But she allows herself to be talked into it by Valentine and the director, convinced as they are that it will be both an artistic, as well as, a financial success, and for several reasons: that the author of the play, a legendary curmudgeon, has just died; that Maria is returning to the play that gave her her first success; and the 18-year old will be played by Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloȅ Grace Moretz), a Lindsay Lohan type who lately has done little but careen from scandal to rehab and back again (ah, the poor Miss Lohan; what must it be like to be someone who now has a type of character named after her).

 

…Sils Maria has a strong first and third act, beautifully shot and sharply focused, with richly detailed characters. But the second act is a bit bewildering and never really connects (and I have yet to talk to anyone who has seen it and understands this section of the film).

 

The middle of the movie is basically a series of scenes in which Valentine helps Maria rehearse while the two argue over the interpretation of the part and the merits of the play.

 

These scenes quickly become repetitious and tiresome mainly because Maria has a point: there is nothing that special about the play. It does seem to bear some general resemblance to Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but the plot is different and it just doesn’t seem to come close to that play’s bitter dramatization of sexual warfare. So basically we are listening to the two argue for an hour over something that doesn’t really seem worth arguing over.

 

(Assayas did something a little similar in his earlier film Irma Vep, in which a group of filmmakers are making a film that doesn’t really seem worth making—the difference is that the conflict in that film wasn’t over the worthiness of the movie, no one seemed to really care about that so much, but the drama was more about the relationship of all the characters).

 

There is one scene that in many ways encapsulates this point. Maria and Valentine attend a showing of Jo-Ann’s latest film, an over the top, studio style Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. It’s also stupid and insipid and Jo-Ann is not particularly impressive in a role that is even less so.

 

Yet afterwards, Valentine sincerely and with strong passion, defends the movie, the character and the acting. And whenever Valentine does, all Maria can do is burst out in peals of incredulous laughter (and can Binoche out incredulous laugh any actor in the field—it’s a joy in many ways just to hear it).

 

At first you want to sympathize with Valentine, cowered by Maria’s ridicule. But you can’t. Valentine’s taste is so obviously awful one can’t help but join with Maria at her unintentional derision.

 

What may be missing here is a reason for Valentine to be so insistent on Maria doing the play. It seems more life and death to the assistant than to the actress, but a motive is never given. So in the end these scenes seem to go nowhere and this middle section suddenly concludes in a way that probably has meaning for Assayas, but went over my head.

 

(A caveat: there is a possibility that this section is supposed to mirror the central conflict of the play itself. If that is so, then I must renig: under those parameters, Stewart gives a terrible performance; though there is chemistry between the two actors as actors, there is absolutely no sexual chemistry and any parallel to the play never comes to life.)

 

The only real saving grace during this part is Moretz, who seems to have channeled all those young self-destructive actresses at once. She’s strikingly good.

 

The title refers to a cloud formation, a bank that winds its way through some mountains in the Swiss countryside. The metaphor is as unclear as the movie itself.

 

gettIn seeing Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the Israeli entry in the 2014 foreign language category of the Academy Awards, it perhaps might be helpful to know two bits of pertinent information:

 

  1. In Israel, divorce (and marriage) is not held in a secular court, but is the sole propriety of the religious.

 

  1. A woman cannot be granted a divorce unless her husband agrees to it.

 

The use of the world “trial” in the title has a double meaning. It refers to not just the legal proceedings taking place, but also the trials and tribulations of the title character. And yes, Viviane undergoes a slew of them just to get free from her situation.

 

Gett:… is a strong and moving piece of agit-prop. It takes a very important social issue and both humanizes and dramatizes the hell out of it.

 

Viviane wants a divorce. There is nothing in the marriage anymore, no emotional connection (she and her husband don’t even speak), she doesn’t need him (she has her own job and doesn’t even live at home).

 

But her husband just won’t give her one. He’s not physically abusive. They don’t have sex. He virtually ignores her existence. But he won’t agree to the divorce and won’t say why.

 

In fact, the reasons for the deterioration of the marriage are a bit vague and unclear, only revealed in bits of information here and there (the husband has higher standards that can be met by Viviane when it comes to religious observance; the husband is cold and distant). But whatever the reasons, it’s obvious the relationship is over and needs to be dissolved.

 

But the conflict drags on for years (yes, there’s no Nevada one can take a trip to and do the deed in thirty days here) as anger and frustrations mount, and as the legal system is revealed to be cruel and unfair, mainly to woman since the man has almost all the power and the judges, even if they wanted to help, find their hands tied for the most parts.

 

The film is written and directed by brother and sister team Ronit and Schlomi Elkabetz, with Ronit also playing the title role (she is perhaps best known here for the film The Band’s Visit).

 

The two have limited their drama to the courtroom itself and some ancillary locations resulting in a claustrophobic feel that only adds to the intensity of the conflict. And this minimalist staging allows the actors to give powerhouse performances of gut wrenching authenticity (especially one moment where Elkabetz can take no more and lambasts her judges with an aria of pent up anger).

 

The main issue is that the filmmakers make their point rather quickly and at times the story reaches a point where it starts to feel a bit repetitious. Though full of strong scenes and a valid sense of righteousness, overall it may grow a bit weary on you sooner than one might wish.

 

With Sasson Gabai, who co-starred with Elkabetz in The Band’s Visit, as the husband’s rabbi and representative in court; Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Zero Dark Thirty) as the husband; and Menashe Noy as Viviane’s lawyer.

 

 

 

 

 

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