Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
By Roderick Heath
The cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has hardly lacked admiration since their breakthrough La Promesse in 1995. The duo all but defined a new style of European realist cinema, charting the evolving moral, economic, and social states of their native environment with keenly felt authenticity, but also quietly blending aspects of many forebears who covered the same terrain of utterly ground-level human experience. The brothers have stuck to a basic template that’s served them well, turning what at first glance would seem to be major impediments—the recessed, caught-between nature of Belgian identity, the lack of fame and import accorded to their native city of Seraing, an industrial and port city of staggering ordinariness—into perfect keynotes for their studies. The stark character drama of their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta (1999), portrayed the dogged and perhaps unwelcome persistence of common human feeling even when survival dictated determined self-interest in its hard-bitten young heroine. Two Days, One Night, their latest opus, deals with a spiritually similar drama, but inverts the focus. Like the brothers’ previous work, The Kid with a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night tries to comprehend the forces both overt and subtle that create not just the context for individual failures and miseries, but also the forces that bind communities and that snap into action once they’re faced with intolerable situations.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is first glimpsed dozing on her bed, waiting for a tart she’s baking to finish, when she’s roused by a phone call. Sandra’s immobility proves to be portentous, as she’s recovering from a bout of intense depression. The phone call reflects this: Sandra, barely recovered and still emotionally fragile, is faced immediately with a crisis her condition has precipitated. She learns that at the solar panel factory where she works, the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), has essentially given her coworkers a choice to either keep Sandra on or receive their annual €1,000 bonuses, because the company can’t afford both. The call has come from Sandra’s friend and advocate Juliette (Catherine Salée), who believes that if they can confront the factory boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) quickly enough, they might be able to call another vote on the Monday morning when she can be present and argue her case. Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a chef in a local fast food restaurant, encourages Sandra to fight for her right to be heard, and when she and Juliette manage to catch Dumont just before he drives home from work, they gain his harried acquiescence to another vote. What becomes immediately clear to Sandra and Manu is that she can’t afford to wait until the Monday to plead her case with her fellow employees: she must lobby them individually with pleas not to agree to her sacking.
Sandra’s journeys to confront her coworkers are laced with more than a plea for her economic survival, as Sandra’s very sense of self and worth is at stake. At first, she can barely be stirred from her bed, her sense of uselessness and unworthiness now seemingly affirmed as she has been implicitly indicted by her coworkers as a being no longer worthy of their loyalty and affection. Only her husband and Juliette’s unswerving loyalty get her moving, though their loyalty feels almost cruel to a person who can barely face the mirror, never mind the outside world and the glares of people she has to beg for her job. To achieve her ends, Sandra quickly realises, she not only has to confront people who have effectively declared her a nonperson, but has to do so in their own little worlds, their own lives, some of which prove to be as straitened as her own and all of which involve a certain rupture of comfortable privacy and precious leisure time, or, indeed, the lack of either. Some are busy with second jobs or coaching children’s sports teams, or looking after babies or trying to kick back.
Most of us have been in a predicament like Sandra’s at some point in our lives, and the Dardennes are brilliantly attuned to the states of mind and little epiphanies that move with quicksilver intensity during such times. The shifts of Sandra’s headspace are casually but acutely noted, as she murmurs in a momentary wish as she and her husband sit eating ice cream in the park, “I wish that was me…that bird singing.” It becomes clear through such touches that the Dardennes are actually telling two closely related, but slightly asymmetrical stories: the tale of Sandra’s recovery, as well as the crisis that both threatens it and confirms it. Fighting for her job and sense of self causes Sandra many anguished moments of doubt and self-disgust, particularly after a violent incident she believes she’s precipitated. But Sandra’s journey is, of course, only intersecting with others, and indeed becomes a study in the uncertainty principle, as her knock on the door both encounters individual quandaries and collides with and catalyses them. This proves particularly crucial when she visits the home of Anne (Christelle Cornil), who explains that she can’t want to give up her bonus because she and her husband are renovating their house, but promises to talk it over with her husband and asks for Sandra to return. Sandra comes back to find the couple quarrelling violently, and soon after, Sandra and Manu find themselves taking Anne in after she leaves her husband.
The tight and remorseless structure bears out some of the Dardennes’ influences. The film’s plot is driven by cause and effect of almost Sophoclean concision, up to and including the limited timespan, the traditional 24 hours of Greek tragedy expanded to about 60. Echoes, too, of French realism like that of Emila Zola can be found, and those particularly Spanish genres, the picaresque and tremendista stories of wanderers and of slices of lives afflicted by sudden calamity. Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s “Hunters Home from the Hunt;” Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.
The Dardennes often evoke religious images and ideas in their work, not with the sense that they’re quietly proselytising, but rather to invoke the most common roots of communal ethical understanding, the vivid and collective intensity of parable. The ethical drama is as important as the surface fate of the characters, whilst Sandra, our everywoman hero, moves through a range of possible likenesses: Jesus sacrificed for our sins, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pamina called back from the dead, Diogenes searching the marketplace for honest men. Whilst Sandra and Manu are working to keep their toehold in the middle class, the question as to what sort of person Sandra is and can be becomes a vital issue, and indeed, seems the question that plagues the woman herself most powerfully. Seeing the melancholic self-contempt etched into her face, we can only immediately assume empathy for her, for she’s such a hapless and assailed creature, and yet a dissonance is carefully built, as Sandra’s rounds uncover the degree to which people remain mysteries to each other even when in close contact. Her workplace is filled with such vile characters and subtle iniquity that it seems reasonable to assume working there might have precipitated her depression. The question looms by the end: does Sandra have the kind of mettle she looks for in her fellows?
The Dardennes’ characters are so often in desperate search of something, usually a definite goal, a job, a loved one, but with a hint of existential anguish lurking just behind that official end, because they’re lost in the world. The very elusive issue in Sandra’s life is also the crucial question of the film: where’s our solidarity? The political dimensions of the film are immediate and powerful, of course. This is a portrait of working-class people and the kinds of problems that afflict them. The boss Dumont is portrayed believably as a man with his own reasonable motives and worries, a person of responsibility and judgement who tries his hand at Solmonlike wisdom and repeatedly fails, and thus becomes party to barbed and cruel choices that make one of his employees a scapegoat, transmitting downward the pressures of the market to the level of the individual employee, the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, the one who has no room to move and can’t shift the effects any further. The choice to situate this drama in a struggling solar panel factory nicely complicates the situation insofar as it’s not some long-caricatured bastion of capitalism. Interestingly, implicit but not actually spoken aloud in Two Days, One Night is the prejudice against Sandra’s psychological malady as unreal compared to a physical injury that would mark her as a nobly injured worker.
The film correlates this invisible state of crippling with the equally hard-to-discern nature of financial distress in a modern Western state, where the accoutrements of suburban life give an illusion of stability that can become a perpetual goad to anxiety. This belief in Sandra’s status as a glorified malingerer is plain in what proves eventually to be the conspiracy against her whipped up by Jean-Marc, who has characterised her as a useless drag, a feeling some of the workers clearly share. The Dardennes are keenest in studying the links of individual psychology to larger subjects. They trace unfailingly the stew of fear, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, outright transference, and prejudice that conspire against Sandra, as well as the empathy, common feeling, and scruples that aid her and gain her unexpected fellowship. The worst reactions Sandra encounters, from Anne’s puerile inability to face her at all to Jerome’s (Yohan Zimmer) assault, suggest intense displacement, and even Jean-Marc’s conniving is rooted only in his function as the man who turns top-down whim into achieved fact. Sandra is introduced to gradations of personal necessity, as what might seem as a luxury to one of her coworkers is for another an overriding and desperate need. Sandra also stumbles into the subtle distinctions of class between the nominally equivalent workers: Alphonse (Serge Koto) is one of the factory’s contract workers whose job security is much less assured than the other workers, and he informs Sandra that he’s afraid to vote for her in case it pisses off his bosses.
The film’s moment of biggest dramatic potential becomes instead an almost comic diminuendo. With echoes of Chantal Akerman’s stringent portraits of hapless domestic women, Sandra, after a particularly hard rebuff from one of her coworkers, goes home, does the housework, fixes her kids lunch, and then goes into the bathroom and takes a fistful of antidepressants to kill herself. Juliette comes by to break news of a fresh chance, whereupon Sandra admits to her and Manu what she’s just done, with a blankly sheepish look. The Dardennes cut straight to Sandra in a hospital bed, fresh from her stomach pumping and already clearly itching to get moving again, suicide already no solution for a woman who’s starting to relearn the joy as well as the pain of fighting for herself. The Dardennes build the film around two interludes of listening to music in the car as Sandra and Manu drive about on their torturous route: the first time Sandra irritably stops her husband turning down Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins,” “La nuit n’en finit plus,” whilst the second sees the pair joined by Anne, singing raggedly along to Them’s “Gloria.” Such a scene suggests the influence of another classic feel-good movie moment where characters sing along to a pop hit, but without the feeling of vulgar manipulation; instead they rather capture the vitality of the place pop music has in many people’s lives that no other art form can touch, and its power to bond them.
Cotillard’s French-language work has seen her moving from strength to strength lately, and Sandra complements her turn in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2013), a role that offered and demanded more acting pyrotechnics, but was similarly about a woman learning to repair herself and operate in a harsh world, eventually turning her weak points into points of armoured strength. The Dardennes only recently broke with their general preference for nonprofessional actors in lead roles: the rest of the cast mixes in several actors, including Rongione, who have become regulars. Cotillard, whose signature smoky eyes deliver registers of sensation like a seismograph, both blends in with the scenery seamlessly and lends the proceedings the finite intelligence and charisma a good actor can offer, defining her character’s states of mind and mood with pointillist precision. The outcome of the meeting on the Monday morning that will decide Sandra’s immediate fate is in doubt until almost the very end, but by the time Two Days, One Night reaches the destination it’s been heading to with inevitability for every little swerve in fortune, it is clear that Sandra has all the tools she needs to continue and formed a small fellowship who affirm both her and their own rights to exist. When Sandra is given a Faustian offer that could swerve off the worst, however, we realise that the entire movie has been leading to this point, as it presents Sandra with the same dilemma she’s presented everyone else with, only intensified in its you-or-them meaning. Sandra’s eventual choice is bound thus to entail defeat either way, fiscally or morally. Which choice you prefer may say too much about yourself and the world you live in.