The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, are known for their naturalistic, slice-of-life pictures, without exception focused on those existing on society’s margins. The Belgian filmmaking team prefers hard-scrabble protagonists – the downtrodden, the down-on-their-luck, and those stuck with impossible, occasionally tragic choices while trying to get by. Their latest, 2014’s Two Days, One Night, fits so solidly and efficiently in this vein it almost seems, after a number of films, a belated mission statement.
Relentlessly and uncompromisingly zeroing in on questions of solidarity, precarious employment, stress, workplace violence, and the alienation of late-capitalism, it’s also a masterpiece uncannily reflecting the hazards people face on the job, and the personal anxieties those hazards induce.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard, in a staggering, Oscar-nominated performance) works in a small solar panel factory, but has been on medical leave for depression. Our first glimpse of her is in her bed, ignoring her telephone’s ring.
The root causes of her depression are never spelled out, but her pill-gobbling and tendency to leave the room to cry make clear she’s been through something – or perhaps is just weighed down by the world’s demands. She feels ready to return to work, though, and has been medically cleared to do so. Her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, excellent) is supportive but concerned for her health. At the same time, both of them know they and their two kids need the money her salary provides.
Her absence from the shop floor, however, has made clear to her boss M. Dumont (and his nasty foreman) that the job can be done by 16 as easily as by 17. In an almost dastardly Machiavellian proposal, he’s offered the other workers a choice: Sandra is let go and everyone else gets a €1,000 bonus, or Sandra stays and no one gets a bonus at all.
Of course, the initial vote doesn’t go her way, and of course the workers were threatened with retaliation and other, more subtle threats. Still, two impassioned comrades speak on her behalf. Sandra and her friend convince the boss he’d look better with a more honest vote, and another is scheduled for Monday morning. She has little more than 48 hours to plead her case to those, similarly struggling, who will lose an often desperately needed bonus if they vote her back on the workforce.
At this point, it becomes clear that the Dardennes are constructing a fable. Though Dumont cites pressure from Chinese firms and the rising costs the small outfit faces, this is still not a reasonable move on his part, and looking at it too closely reveals it’s probably his worst choice (assuming he is not a sociopath). But the film’s neat trick is to play out this somewhat outlandish morality play in the most naturalistic way possible.
At first unable to even process it – she recovers from illness only to find her job is contingent on the say-so of her bribed co-workers – Sandra begins to take action. On Maru’s gentle but insistent recommendation, she visits each co-worker in turn, and we come along. The reactions are what you’d expect: shame at their own greed followed by apology; outrage at her daring to even show up on their doorsteps begging and making them feel bad; guilty but resigned responses that they really need the money (and some sure seem like they might). One woman Sandra considered a friend refuses to answer the door at all. Two different encounters lead to family battles, one more physical than the other. It’s brutal, and Sandra’s lingering depression isn’t helping matters. The words “Put yourself in my shoes” (which aptly sums up the Dardennes’ vision of cinema) occur again and again, from all sides. In the meantime, the screenplay ratchets up the tension by revealing that the foreman has been calling these people, too – an employer-led counterforce to her attempt at worker power.
As she crisscrosses the city, from small tenements to large countryside houses to a laundry where an immigrant colleague works for under-the-table cash, Sandra is barely holding it together, and the Dardennes make this clear in interesting ways. There are also small moments of joy, like a rock n’ roll sing-a-long in the car at night, and her triumphant smile when one co-worker breaks down, thanking her for the opportunity to vote the way he knew he should’ve in the first place. The bleak narrative disguises hidden wells of strength and connection, and the film clearly announces that, at the end of the day, there is power in all kinds of unions.
The knock against the film from some corners seems to be that it is the same thing over and over: Sandra gets an address, pleads her case, and gets an answer to add to the vote tally. This makes it sound like an airless Lobbying Day at the State Capitol. It isn’t that.
Instead, the film’s most poignant and resonant moments come from the nuance of the individual interactions, and the implicit critique of a system that would make people fight tooth and nail for the very right to the means of subsistence. In its heart of hearts, Two Days, One Night is a film that believes fiercely in the dignity of working people, and the strength (and grace) located in the struggle to improve one’s lot. The world is a cruel place, the bosses can be capricious, the workers are compelled to fight over scraps … but that’s all the more reason to pull it together and demand the right to exist, and fight for a better world in which one can, at a minimum, hold their head up high.
Does she win the vote? Well, watch the movie. Like few other filmmakers working today, the Dardennes know how to stick the landing. As in their The Kid With A Bike (my nominee for the greatest final scene of the last 10 years), Two Days, One Night refuses cynicism while also not letting anyone – characters or viewers – off easy. Which fables never should.
Instead, we are left contemplating solidarity, the forces that impede it in the workplace, the ways in which external pressures structure our lives (inner and outer), and our power, as individuals and as members of larger structures, to stand up and fight back.
Despite its plot summary, Two Days, One Night is not a cynical film at all. The Dardennes are humanists through and through, existentialists in the Camus tradition, and their love is evident in every frame.
It’s never a moment too soon to be reminded that the fight is worth it, win or lose, and that we’re not alone.