Julianne Moore and Marion Cotillard are the best. They continually choose tough, challenging, thoughtful parts in interesting movies that seem to always fly under the radar. (‘A Single Man’, ‘Don Jon’, ‘The Immigrant’, ‘Rust and Bone’) When they do appear in a larger scale films, they bring so much to their roles that it’s hard to pay attention to anybody else (‘Mockingjay’, ‘Inception’). They mesmerize. As Cate Blanchett proclaimed in her ‘Blue Jasmine’ Oscar acceptance speech, “…and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” These two woman prove this powerful sentiment over and over. Sorry Meryl, along with Blancett and Chastain, they’ve been the best for a while now. Recently, I had the pleasure to sit through two excellent, nuanced performances from these actresses.
Based on Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name, ‘Still Alice’ chronicles an accomplished Columbia University linguistics professor, Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), as her mind slowly deteriorates due to a rare case of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. So, yeah, this is a rough one.
Nobody is better than Julianne Moore this year. I hate to chalk up an entire movie’s quality to one performance, as ‘Still Alice’ is beautifully filmed with a natural touch, and wonderfully acted by her co-stars, but it really is Moore’s show. They all supporting this movie’s, and Hollywood’s, true star. Her performance is so delicate, layered, and heartbreaking, that there is room to mistake this for a documentary of sorts.
Alice’s determination to fight the deterioration of her mind, body, and family is put on full display. Moore conveys such a sense of acceptance, denial, and pure fight throughout the entity of the film that when, eventually, hope starts to evaporate, it’s all the more gut-wrenching. Even in her attempts to stall the speed of the disease through different memory methods, Alice knows it’s only a momentary win; her disease is destined to worsen quickly. As Alice loses bits and pieces of herself, which is mapped out with incredbile detail by Moore and the directors, her husband and children reluctantly see the end and, sadly, begin to plan their new beginning in some matter of fact, hard to swallow scenes.
Alice’s fade is hardest on her youngest child, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and husband John (Alec Baldwin), respectively. Stewart and Baldwin are featured heavily (as far as anybody can be featured in this one woman show) and are excellent. The use of these two characters’ different reactions to the circumstance add insightful and necessary padding around the central character’s journey.
I think that Lydia sees a more stripped down version of her mother—who she used to be or truly is at heart. John just doesn’t see his wife anymore after being her sole caretaker. He lives with, and is taking care of, a pod creature. To deal with his sorrow, he separates himself in an attempt to move on. Lydia gets closer, knowing that a crushing blow is coming. Haunted by the thought: “This wasn’t supposed to happen to us”– John and Lydia’s reactions are surprising to even themselves.
I won’t go into detail of some of my favorite moments, as I want you to see them for the first time in context. However I will say that these mishaps and moments never plateau the film, they are strung together to create a natural evolution of the story and overwhelming loss of, and for, Alice.
Directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer deserve a lot of credit that they kept this film from crossing the threshold into melodramatic territory. There is a grounded reality to the work. Told within a simple framework of hazy old films (memories?) of Alice’s long deceased sister and mother, the film’s thematic elements of love, memory, and self-preservation are beautifully, but not abundantly, highlighted as we follow Alice through her devastating final act. Yes, you will cry for two hours–maybe even after. Julianne Moore’s performance will break your heart because Alice is always there, even in her eyes, but at the same time there’s a vacancy that can’t be filled. Once again, Mr. Oscar is Moore’s to lose — and she won’t.
Two Days, One Night
After taking time off due to depression, a wife and mother of two, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), loses her job at the local factory. Her co-workers have collectively chosen to let her go and each take a bonus. Hesitantly, Sandra takes the weekend to convince the majority to change their minds before a second vote on Monday morning. Once again, not light content.
‘Two Days, One Night’ is simple in its premise, but complex it in its ideas and morals. It’s a film not only about finding happiness and inner strength in a world that seemingly hands out raw deals, but about decision making as an individual versus in a group setting and how these decisions genuinely affect the well-being of others. If Sandra can effectively convince the majority to vote for her, she will have discovered that she can have a more direct control over her circumstances–all of them. The opportunity to course correct your own life and potentially succeed is terrifying. For a movie that is about these very moral dilemmas,‘Two Days, One Night’ never gets preachy or over the top. It is all executed well by directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne–beautiful shots of isolation mixed with straight-forward static shots to not distract from Cotillard playing the nervous saleswoman trying to convert voters.
Cotillard’s subtle, big-when-it-needs-to-be, performance holds the narrative together so tightly that it never seems to unravel as she visits co-worker after co-worker. Her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), full of sadness, love and obligation, is the supportive fire that she needs to get going. He’s both looking out for his, her, and their well being and it’s abundantly clear that there are three sources of motivation. They are broken team on completely different pages, clawing to make it all work. There is a layer of their relationship that is only discussed once, three-fourths of the way through the film, but it weighs heavily on everything this family is fighting for throughout the film.
As Sandra struggles to allow herself to fight for her own (and family’s) survival, her co-workers’ justifications for their choices and their willingness to listen to her side vary. It’s an interesting study into what a little extra money does to people. Is the ability to help my fellow man override the need to care for my own family? Is this my money or am I taking it? When given these two options, who does a person become? It’s a high stakes situation that determines the outcome for an entire slew of families in a tough economy. The decision is not as easy as one thinks and the movie doesn’t make look that way.
The third act is very straightforward with some predictable moments, but the outcome is justified and lovely in a way I didn’t expect. The feelings you’re left with kind of sneak up on you. There is a scene (you’ll know it when you see it) that despite the dire circumstances and seriousness of the actions, seems rushed and inconsequential. It incorporated character beats that needed to be included, but didn’t organically flow into the next portion of the story. However, what could have been an below average, run of the mill film, is elevated through Cotillard’s performance, a nicely paced script, and thoughtful direction. It’s not one of my favorite films of this past year, but it’s quite memorable, thanks to its leading lady.
If you go out of your way to enjoy both of these films (which you should), you’ll see how similar these women’s characters are, albeit in very different circumstances. They draw hope from the same places and they need to find or maintain their own personhood before it’s gone. These films should not only be categorized as “female films,” but explorations of any persons’ identity and strength.
Cotillard already has her Oscar statue for 2007’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ and Moore is sure to win this year. How does she not have a little golden man already?! Fun Fact That Doesn’t Really Matter: Interestingly, Cotillard beat out front runner Julie Christie for ‘Away From Her’ in ‘07, another well-made film about the effect of Alzheimer’s disease. This year, she only has an outside shot to break into the field, which is ashame. Hopefully we will see both of these women in this year’s ‘Best Actress’ category (a category that should be considered stronger year to year). Regardless of what “The Academy” thinks, we’ll get to absorb and ruminate about these two women’s strong work for years to come. As Cate Blanchett pointed out, I am ready to see and happy to spend my money on movies that feature these women. The best of the best.
Keep on Watchin’!