I have been meaning for some time to applaud the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their new film Two Days, One Night seems the appropriate occasion for recognition, but all of their films merit regular revisiting and, in my view, celebration. But Two Days may be of greatest importance, with its thoughtful comments on the state of capitalism and gender relations, and a carefully-observed world where humanist values barely hang on.
In some respects Two Days’s narrative seems a kind of throwback to earlier days of industrial capitalism, with its story of a young woman, Sandra (an exquisite Marion Cotillard), trying to keep her job in a Belgian solar panel factory against the resistance of 16 fellow workers and the boss. The workers will get a bonus if they vote Sandra out. Her situation recalls the remark by infamous nineteenth-century railroad tycoon and banking magnate Jay Gould: “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” Things haven’t changed very much in Sandra’s world, as workers are pitted against workers for their meager salaries. The situation raises questions about the nature of democracy in capitalist civilization. Workers have a choice: keep your jobs by kicking out this nuisance or lose your bonuses (with the implied threat that they will all eventually be disposed of).
Sandra is forced to go door-to-door, pleading with co-workers to help her keep her job. It is notable that she and the others are noticeably working class; their clothing is plain, their needs obvious. Their complaint to her (they need to work too) is entirely legitimate. M. Dumont (Batiste Sornin), the company owner, has little screen time and requires little. Capitalism is presented here as a system, not as a question of a few greedy bosses. Dumont has his hatchet man Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), who regularly reminds people of the stakes they are playing for. The carrot-and-stick policies (mostly stick) that have always been wielded over alienated, non-union labor are present here in all of their dimensions. Jean-Marc is sufficient to account for the company enforcement apparatus, with no need for mercenaries or soldiers with rifles. The small scale of the film, with the little company of sixteen workers, is sufficient for the Dardennes to make their point about the cruelty always confronting labor.
There is no irony in Sandra’s employment by a company focusing on “political correct” manufacture. The solar equipment produced by the company reminds us how the admonitions to “go green” have far more to do with steering consumer interest than saving a very stricken planet. This, and the “democratic” approach to Sandra’s dismissal, presents the liberal face of deindustrialized capital.
Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) seems a model of the supportive partner, assisting her to cope with her wretched situation – but it is he who suggests the grueling, humiliating errand of confronting each co-worker, essentially begging them to vote for her. Manu also has a way of repeatedly saying that the job is Sandra (as if the drudgery of labor in this shop defines her), a basic notion of capitalism: one is what one does – and what one owns.
At the center of the film is Sandra’s radiance, underscoring the film’s humanist concerns bested only, I think, by Bruno Dumont. Working without makeup (I can’t but think of Juliette Binoche in Bruno Dumont’s overwhelmingly powerful Camille Claudel 1915), Marion Cotillard projects the greatest, plaintive sensitivity without being in the least cloying. By her sheer presence, the film makes a case for the female as the embodiment of the good, the true, and the beautiful (I have no hesitation in using the hackneyed metaphysical phrase), which patriarchal capitalist civilization is disposing of with everything of authentic value. She is also simply a person who wants decent treatment from her society. In her plain (yet flattering) print blouses, she is always the embodiment of unadorned beauty. Most important, because Sandra is indeed sensitive, she has been deformed. A key reason for her scapegoating by Dumont is her leave-taking from the plant due to severe depression. She is defined as a “nut” since she doesn’t have the stomach for the kind of mistreatment central to her work – there is no need to see its details. She uses tranquilizers to function, and at one point of the narrative attempts an overdose on Xanax. She is hospitalized, but is soon back on her feet petitioning for her job. Her quick departure from her hospital bed may seem unrealistic, but the film doesn’t veer from realism, except perhaps in its ultimate idealism. Sandra must get up; no one will beg the boss for her. Necessary questions are raised by Sandra’s scoffed-at emotional infirmity. Emotional trauma seems the logical outcome of being a wage slave in the current “globalized” economy, as owners cite “free trade agreements” (Noam Chomsky noted that no word of that phrase has any meaning; there is nothing there about freedom, little about actual trade [what occurs is mainly internal operations of corporations] and “agreements” occur only among the highest reaches of finance capital, with the major political parties saying almost nothing in protest) that force them to make “tough decisions” (read, fire people).
To ameliorate anxiety suffered by Sandra (as a representative case), drugs and therapy are necessary. I wonder these days if there is anyone, at least not in the upper class, not on pills of some kind – anti-depressants, benzodiazepine tranquilizers, and the like, used to inure us to the profound alienation that is now simply accepted, rather than the subject of angst and protest (the films of Antonioni), are commonplace. If Sandra is to continue as a wage slave, she must remain an addict. Pharmaceutical drugs, often with serious side-effects, are of course openly advertised on television. A small reflection on this, and on the demonization of the despairing poor hooked on cheap “illegal” drugs like crack and methamphetamine, pulls our current situation into critical focus.
As they capture the street scenes of the Belgian town that is the narrative’s site, the Dardennes reveal the unsettling aspect of the quotidian, the damage done to basic expectations of the natural world. The numerous advertisements, prevalent there and everywhere in the West, make use, of course, of primary colors, in the process stripping them of their essential allure, turning nature into artifice.
Culture informs the film, as it informs Michael Haneke and Dumont, in their cases the transcendent work of the European past, including Bach and Schubert. Such artists provide consolation to their characters (and us) in a barbaric present. Sandra and her husband don’t experience (can’t experience?) that level of joy, but become elated when their car radio plays Petula Clark’s “La nuit n’en finit plus,” the tune adopted from 1960s British pop group The Searchers’s “Needles and Pins” (I must say that Clark’s version is superior in the eroticism informing her phrasing. Parenthetically, Clark was the only pop singer beloved of Glenn Gould, the greatest classical pianist of the last century). Later, Sandra and Manu have a rousing time singing along to Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” There is a point here of no small debate in cultural discourse: even the great rock of the past is fading away, as corporate-produced non-talents come and go with each business cycle (or faster).
In the process of losing her job, Sandra seems to think that she has discovered a new human solidarity formed by her pleas to others, and by the authentic words of comfort expressed by a few. The Dardennes may be expressing a dangerous utopianism here; if they feel this is simply Sandra’s utopianism, the point might be useful. We want to find solace in something, and retain belief in some ultimate, profounder comfort. Yet, the naiveté expressed in the last scenes of Two Days, One Night may also convey defeatism, and perhaps even a bit of arrogance on the part of the Dardennes. That said, this is a remarkable film.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.