September 30, 2014
The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.
Gone Girl is a David Fincher movie and is thusly a very good-looking one, working again with DP Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club). Though it opens and closes with a shallow-focus close-up, the majority of the film emphasizes maximum visibility, with a lot of long shots that encompass glass, television monitors and security cameras. Much of the film has to do with the media frenzy that accompanies Amy’s disappearance, as she was the model for a popular children’s book series written by her parents. The tabloid talk shows push the trashiest and most outrageous narratives of the case, including at one point speculating on Nick and his twin sister Margo (an acerbic Carrie Coon) engaging in “twincest”. And though the movie runs a robust 150 minutes, Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter utilize a clipped editing style that always cut a beat or two before I expected. Even the opening credit titles flash on and off far quicker than usual. This clipped style kept me off balance – as if the film was proceeding ahead of me and I was scrambling to catch up. It was fun to feel that off kilter, though the tempo distends in the climactic latter stages into something more conventional.
The acting tends to be as controlled and clipped as the editing, especially the investigative team led by Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. Dickens is a superb no-bullshit cop, forever with an oversized styrofoam coffee cup in her hand and a bloodhound twitch in her eyes when clues passed her field of vision. She has no wasted gestures, words or syllables. She leaves those to her assistant (Patrick Fugit), who seems to speak entirely in pithy putdowns. The only one in the cast who lacks this tightness is Ben Affleck, whose Nick floats in a boyish fog. When Amy disappears he doesn’t so much as shrug, while at the station he speaks to the police with distanced deference, as if arguing a speeding ticket rather than helping a search for his missing wife. It is an impressive bit of smarminess for a major star, but he doesn’t manage to sustain it. As Nick takes on the mantle of victimhood, Affleck becomes a genial joker, instead of the self-regarding a-hole the movie needs to balance its battle of the sexes. When the couple reforms, the movie becomes less about how spouses deform themselves to sustain relationships, but about the subjugation of Affleck’s good ‘ol boy to Rosamunde Pike’s world-devouring wife.
In Two Days, One Night Sandra is no Amy. Living in a healthy relationship with husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she has no ability to dissemble in front of her fellow workers. It takes her entire force of will to knock on each door, and put herself under their pitying, guilty glares. She knows that her question will instill guilt, and each bonus voter is a fount explanations and justifications, some understandable, others not. Each encounter has the tension of a heist sequence, just that the stakes are much higher. Money is tight all over, and Sandra is asking these people to give up a year of gas bills. It is the rare film where bills have a physical weight, that conveys the suffocating anxiety that money problems can instill – the complete helplessness. Her path through the town in Two Days, One Night is stop-start as that force of will crumbles, having to be built up again by Manu or her few encouraging co-workers. Then there are the brief moments of happiness. Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) weeps at getting a chance to reverse his vote to Sandra – and as she walks away breaks into uncontrollable smiles, Cotillard’s body a brief lightning rod of joy. The other burst occurs inside of Manu’s car, as Van Morrison’s “Gloria” crackles over the radio. The whole car bursts into song, Sandra giving herself up to the chorus, trying to escape into the tune.