One of the great controversies of this year’s Oscar race is the perceived “snub” of Jennifer Aniston for her performance in the film Cake (which garnered her a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best actress) in favor of the surprise nomination for the Academy Awards’ favorite Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard for her performance in Two Days, One Night, a film that barely squeezed into eligibility by appearing on five screens in the United States before the December 31 deadline for nominations. On the off chance that somebody may care what I think about it, let me devote this column to an exploration of the two performances with an eye toward either lamenting Anniston’s snub or applauding Cotillard’s nomination.
Both actresses play women suffering from depression. In Aniston’ case, it is a depression that continues throughout the movie without much hope. In Cotillard’s, it is a depression she has recovered from though the circumstances of the film threaten to drag her down once more. It ought to be said at the outset that both actresses are convincing in their pain and evoke from the viewer both sympathy and frustration, much as they do to those closest to them in their respective films.
But there are few other similarities in the characters. Anniston plays Claire Bennett, a wealthy Los Angeles attorney whose bitterness over a car accident that killed her young son and left her scarred and in severe pain has driven her husband away, and has kept her from returning to work after more than a year. Her only support is her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), who stays devoted to her when anyone else would have been long gone. Cotillard plays Sandra, a working-class woman who, trying to return to her job at a solar panel factory after missing time with emotional problems, finds herself laid off as a result of a vote forced on her coworkers by the company’s management. Sandra’s loyal husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) stays with her and consistently encourages her to keep fighting for her job.
Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland), presents Claire as an angry, resentful woman who is kicked out of her support group for her caustic remarks about others’ pain, is about to be dropped by her physical therapist for failing to make an effort to improve, engages in casual sex with people like the pool boy in order to have some form of human contact, and is addicted to painkillers to such an extent that she convinces her housekeeper to drive her to Tijuana to pick some up illegally. When it appears that there is little or nothing that she can do to win our sympathy, Claire steps in to save Silvana from an embarrassing encounter with a few patronizing “old friends” they run into while lunching in Mexico. And there are other occasional flashes of the old Claire that surface, underscoring what a loss it is that she has become what she has.
Along the way Claire has become obsessed with one of her former support group patients (Anna Kendrick), who has committed suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. The scenes where Kendrick appears are an interesting break from the nearly unrelenting misery of the film, though in the end it’s hard to tell whether they are dreams or hallucinations, and exactly what they are telling Claire. But her interest in Kendrick, while it seems to put the idea of suicide into her mind, also strangely compels Claire to seek out Kendrick’s former home, meet her husband (Sam Worthington) and son, and gives her some interest in forming tentative new human connections.
The plot of the latest film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike), Two Days, One Night, is simpler and in many ways more realistic: Sandra (Cotillard) has just returned to her job after a bout with depression, but the management of the Belgian solar panel factory has put her fate into the hands of her 16 fellow workers: they can either allow Sandra to return to work, or they can receive a bonus of 1,000 euros and Sandra will be laid off. The company cannot afford both.
The vote turns out 14 to 2 in favor of the bonus, and Sandra appears doomed to lose her job—a job she and her husband and two children need in order to stay in their home. Word is, however, that the foreman has influenced the vote by hinting to some workers that if Sandra is not laid off, they very may well be. Sandra and her friend Juliette speak to the manager and get him to agree to another vote that will take place on Monday morning. After speaking to one of the other workers by phone, Sandra is faced with the task of spending the weekend tracking down the remaining 13 co-workers and trying to convince them to change their votes.
What could have been an exercise in redundancy—one confrontation after another—turns instead into a series of tiny individual mini-dramas in which we see thirteen different characters, each confronted with the choice of taking the thousand euros—a sum which each of them needs to some extent—or sacrificing that sum to allow Sandra to keep her job, her entire income. It is a moral and ethical dilemma that plays out for each character in a different way, and we see layer upon layer of internal struggle in each character that Sandra approaches.
The fact is that both performances are excellent. If I had to choose, I would say that Cotillard’s shows more range. It is subtle and quiet, and from her tearing eyes to her need for her Xanax to her optimistic rallying to her despair and desire to just go to bed, she is perfectly convincing as a woman truly suffering from depression. Aniston physically gets into her role, moving gingerly throughout as if in perpetual agony, and pays a bitter suffering woman with occasional glimpses of the humor that used to be there. But in a direct comparison of the two performances, it is Aniston’s that I came away from thinking “That was pretty good acting,” and it was from Cotillard’s that I came away thinking, “That was real.”
In the end, Two Days, One Night is a much better movie than Cake. Aniston acted as executive producer for the film, clearly because she wanted a serious dramatic role at this stage in her career, playing a role that she normally would not have been considered for, with her history chiefly in romantic comedy. Her performance here will certainly make her a viable candidate for other more serious roles in the future. But the film itself follows a very familiar arc of healing and doesn’t really give us anything new—other than the strange scenes with Kendrick. But for many Academy voters Cake may have simply been too obviously a vehicle by which Jennifer Aniston was trying to win herself an Oscar nod.
Two Days, One Night, on the other hand, is the first film that the Dardenne brothers have made with a major star, and Cotillard’s appearance in the film will no doubt give it a greater circulation than it would otherwise have attained. But the film itself is well-made, with or without its star. It has a simple but clever premise that allows for a great range of dramatic encounters within its limited scope. There is no question that a good performance in an excellent movie is going to be more remarkable to an audience than a good performance in a mediocre movie. And Cotillard’s performance is better than good. The academy made the right call. If you have to choose, see the French film with its subtitles, and skip the star-making vehicle.