Among the more pressing controversies attending the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations came the surprise inclusion of Marion Cotillard in the category of best actress, a nomination granted for her role in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, un nuit). An L.A. Times article published in the immediate aftermath of the Oscars announcement quotes Cotillard as being ‘totally in shock. This was very, very unexpected.’ It would suffice to note the Academy’s general aversion to placing non-anglophone films in its major award categories, not to mention the fact that Two Days, One Night actually missed out on a nomination for best foreign language feature, to explain why Cotillard’s reaction has been broadly shared by the media and the public at large. Alongside Hollywood’s basic xenophobia, however, we might identify another reason why the Academy’s decision to nominate Cotillard demands scrutiny; namely, the essentially Brechtian nature of her performance.
The influence of the early twentieth century theatre director Bertolt Brecht is doubtless subject to all kinds of partial readings and misapprehensions, and it would be an error to suggest that the full scope of the loaded term “Brechtian” can be unpacked in a piece such as this. However, a useful account of both the promise and the pitfalls of a Brechtian “epic” approach to acting and staging is available to us in Henri Lefebvre’s recently republished three-volume opus A Critique of Everyday Life. In the foreword to the 1958 edition of the Critique’s first volume, Lefebvre introduces Brecht as an artist whose formal innovations were directed precisely towards the domain covered in his own book: ‘When he tried to explain the meaning of the word “epic”,’ Lefebvre relates, ‘he used the example of a traffic accident, with witnesses discussing what happened and giving biased accounts of it, each implying a judgement (taking a stand, taking sides) and an attempt to make the listener share that judgement.’ In Lefebvre’s account, the emphasis placed by Brechtian theatre on members of the audience taking a stand, taking sides, is a crucial element of Brecht’s attempt to reweave theatre into the practice of everyday life: ‘when we are living seriously’, Lefebvre writes, ‘we also come to decisions in the absence of adequate information, confronting chance and determinism and therefore playing in the deepest meaning of the world.’ What is more, these decisions, although their motivations may never be fully transparent to us, inevitably have real effects in social life: ‘What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp…But the battle, however confused, always has an outcome.’ In an attempt to overcome the habitual passivity of theatre audiences, and to subvert the privileged, cloistered space set aside for theatre in the public realm, Brechtian theatre thus insists on creating and maintaining scenarios in which audiences are squeezed into partisan positions, ones which would have real, unpredictable effects if repeated outside the auditorium. Essential to the audience’s capacity to make such judgements is a refusal on the part of the director to extract on-stage characters from the social contingencies which define their actions, which means letting go of our overwhelming concern with that which lies hidden within men and women: individual psychology. The Academy, to return to our main theme, tends to reward “absorbing”, “compelling”, “bewitching” performances which betoken exceptionalism and enigmatic individuality. The on-screen actions of an Oscar-worthy performer usually point as much to some ineluctable humanistic core as they do to the character’s social circumstances. This is precisely the manner of performance that Brecht sought to do away with, in the name of a more radically engaged form of theatrical production.
It is this form of production that is revived to some extent in Two Days, One Night. The film’s plot is mercifully quick to recount: Cotillard’s Sandra, a young mother who works for a small company manufacturing solar panels, faces unemployment after her colleagues are presented with an ultimatum by management: as long as they agree to make Sandra redundant, they will receive a €1,000 bonus. Management had discovered the company’s capacity to operate with 16 workers instead of 17 during a leave of absence which Sandra took while recovering from a nervous breakdown, an event which continues to cast a shadow over Sandra’s life in the form of a dependency on the anxiety medication Xanax. Over the course of the weekend prior to the vote, Sandra attempts to meet each one of her colleagues in order to persuade them to give up their promised bonuses and keep her at the company. Although Cotillard is granted some scenes in which her character’s personal struggles are played out – in addition to her health issues, we see that her marriage is strained and lacking in intimacy – the vast majority of the film takes the form of vignettes in which Sandra attempts to convince her co-workers to sacrifice their own gain for her sake, often constructed through near-identical exchanges of dialogue (in all but one case, Sandra is at least initially met with the response that times are hard for her interlocutor too, and that they simply can’t afford to pass up the offered money).
Those sections of the film which address Sandra’s pathology are not primarily there to reveal to us the singularity of this character – in fact, Sandra retains an air of inscrutability throughout, she is not an enigma that is progressively unravelled – but to provide an essential context for those moments of the film which require us to adopt a judgemental attitude. In every one of her encounters, we are reminded that although Sandra is the film’s protagonist, she is by no means a special case: Sandra’s anxiety is in fact universal in the ecosystem of 21st century capitalism which is the film’s universe. Every one of her antagonists has money issues, family issues, health issues, all of which can be connected in some way to the precarious conditions of their relationship to labour and capital. Cotillard’s character, and the characters she shares a screen with, possess just enough personality to give these encounters an emotional charge, but not to the extent that we can dismiss their struggles as mere wilfulness: the scenarios the film delineates are understood as products of social forces; individual decisions demand to be understood in the context of the contingent circumstances in which they are made. The film’s refusal of exceptionalism in the case of its main character means that the audience can never safely isolate her social circumstances from the thrust of the plot, and thus can never quite isolate themselves from the action. As a result, the film is undeniably quite tedious and monotonous, but through its privations and its repetitions it transmits a loud, consistent message: at the specific level, we must not forget that workers’ solidarity is always threatened first and foremost by the conditions of artificial scarcity which make solidarity so essential in the first place, and at the more general level, we must not forget that all this anxiety is rooted in systemic factors.
Lefebvre’s analysis of Brecht, however, points us in the direction of a danger inherent to this style of representation. As Lefebvre notes, Brecht attempted to develop a range of experimental devices which conventional theatre audiences might consider “alienating” in order to “disalienate” those audiences in the context of their wider lives. The Dardennes’ eschewal of the expected levels of character development in order to foreground the systemic roots of the suffering shown on screen would be an example of this approach. For Lefebvre, Brecht’s viewer ‘is meant to feel wrenched from his self but only in order to enter more effectively into his self and become conscious of the real and the contradictions of the real.’ However, Lefebvre goes on, ‘there is a risk that this process will take on the disturbing form, worse even than classic identification, of fascination…It would be another paradox, and a very strange one, if this new art were to sanction alienation by giving it all the glamour of violence.’ A singular focus on the means that Cotillard uses to convey the anxiety her character suffers from – say, for example, if the lead actress were to receive a nomination for an Academy Award while the film as a whole did not – would risk falling into this position of obfuscating, glamourising fascination. For an example of this we need look no further than the winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Actress, Cate Blanchett. In a review of Blue Jasmine, the film that won Blanchett her second individual Oscar, Under the Radar’s Austin Trunick breathlessly proclaims that the actress ‘is impressive as a woman constantly teetering on the edge of collapse; there’s a perpetual sense something tragic simmers beneath her constructed facade.’ Blanchett is hereby rewarded for the sense of depth with which she imbued her character: her Jasmine is an unhappy enigma which we are compelled to unravel. This is one impression of many (it is in fact the first review of Blue Jasmine which shows up on Rotten Tomatoes), but it demonstrates the vocabulary through which cases are often made during awards season, one repeatedly raised in reference to the likes of Rosamund Pike and Reese Witherspoon, two of Cotillard’s rivals for the best actress Award.
It should come as no surprise that the Academy’s approach to acting does not align with Brechtian principles. In a cultural climate where attention to systemic structures as opposed to individual narratives is always hard-won, we should not expect Hollywood to reward films which mobilise affect against predatory capitalism, understood as a high-maintenance system as opposed to a congeries of rogue monopolists and bad eggs. This is why Cotillard’s nomination is so surprising, and why it would be an act of violence to both her performance and to Two Days, One Night as a whole were she to win.