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By Christopher Sharrett.

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).

two-days-one-nightSandra 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.

c5c5d07c-0394-4362-bc39-02a8e84977daThere 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.

wk0cmsmvocy0x63a9enpAt 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.

8 thoughts on “Two Days, One Night: Woman at Work”

  1. This is film criticism of a high order. Thanks Christopher for another terrific review and thoughtful discussion.

    By no means intended as a criticism; only as an observation, the review paints a dark image of the contemporary world, and makes for a gloomy read. I had to look out the window after reading the final sentence to see if storm clouds had rolled overhead and chased away the winter morning sun. But then when you confront issues such as “the liberal face of deindustrialized capital” and the victimisation of labour it would be naïve to expect a feel-good review.

    The cultural discourse point was particularly interesting, as one can’t help but regularly reflect that talent in all areas of culture has been devalued. This has allowed culture to be raped by self-serving individuals who input nothing back in. To these individuals – celebrities posing as artists/creative individuals – culture is nothing more than a cash point or a highway to fame and the adoration of the mass consumer. Perhaps even professions are losing their allure. For example, I remember a time when the title editor, journalist or writer was an aspirational title. But now with the internet having democratised film criticism for example, these titles have lost that allure, if only because they are so readily adopted now. I sometimes wonder if within film criticism distributors and PR are actively manufacturing critics – with very little emphasis on anything other than to create a recognisable name for the consumer. In all areas of culture talent must retain its value and art which on one level is a business, must retain a degree of artistic integrity, kept separate from a capitalist ethos.

    But the alarming point you raise is how humanist values are barely hanging on. But then each individual has the capacity for cruelty, and as Jung argued, we are worse when we are together than when we are on our own.

    This review is one of those pieces of writing that makes you ask where it all went wrong, and increases the despair at our inability to access our collective humanity and to do the right thing. By the parting thought you show “why cinema, at its best, addresses basic questions of daily life.”

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for the kind remarks. I think your point about “manufactured critics” is spot on. But then there is no real criticism, as I understand the term, nothing like, in TS Eliot’s phrase, the common pursuit of true judgment. The industry has no tolerance for this, and by industry I mean the lapdogs in the press as much as the film business.. What we see is hardly even reviewing, a once-distinguished vocation.

    I think what surrounds us is lawful, logical, the outcome of what we have chosen–I blame ourselves as much as those with power over us.

  3. You’re more than welcome Chris. I think the pursuit of ‘true judgement’ is the only definition of real criticism, and as we are in an age where a higher value is placed on quantity over quality, then it is difficult to see a return to the distinguished-vocation status. Your closing thought in the comment above is well observed. In the end those in power cannot be held solely responsible, rather the responsibility must be shared accordingly. I tend to perceive the role of the writer as a servant to the craft of writing, and as we write about film ultimately to the discussion of film. On reflection I suppose this is in keeping with the vocational identity. Perhaps good writers resemble a resistance cell in that there are those such as yourself who I believe are in pursuit ‘true judgement.’ Your work is valuable – irreplaceable. So all is not lost, but the pursuit is destined to be a marginalised one now, and good writing must be searched for and demanded if things are to improve.

    I sense writing is more ego fulfilment nowadays, unless this is me just being excessively cynical, which happens from time to time. Raymond Chandler made a point along the lines that writers learn from themselves and they learn from other writers. But more and more I see an unwillingness to learn and perfect one’s writing. Perhaps film criticism if we can still float that term around has been raped by fans posing as writers, and similarly to celebrities writing is their cashpoint to feed their desire for the attention of the mass consumer. Why do we easily forget that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves? But you are correct in that we ourselves and those in power are jointly responsible for what surrounds us. And of course you are correct in that a lot of what we see is hardly worth reviewing, and this point could never be better made than in the shadow of the Oscars.

    As for myself, through my writing I endeavour to find the soul of a film, though whether or not I manage this I leave to others to decide. This however is always my guiding influence and hopefully it is something I achieve in part.

  4. Excellent piece, Chris — I must have missed this essay somehow. This is really one of the better films of 2014, and deserves the widest possible audience. Thanks for a great “read” on the film – yes, humanist values are barely hanging on now, in a world in which corporations exploit and discard workers like so many disposable cogs in a machine. The Dardennes have really done an excellent piece of work here; nice to see Marion Cotillard in something other than a Christopher Nolan movie – it’s almost redemptive.

  5. I agree, Chris. It is a stunning film. An important film that reminds me of the Dardennes’ best films, La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999). Both films look directly at the ugly truths of vile capitalism and its destruction of the family, among the human spirit. The Dardennes lost their footing for a few films — but it looks like they are back in fine form with this one.

    I had a different take on the ending of Two Days, One Night, which left me inconsolable, devastated. I thought it typically bleak and hopeless, but it managed to leave Sandra with an ever so slight degree of dignity – one that can rarely be found in these jobs – in my own life experience working in factories and menial jobs. There appears to be a slight nod to Bresson – the later and particularly grim Bresson, that is.

    No matter what, Sandra cannot “win.” Nobody wins. The end of this film suggests that human solidarity is simply impossible. Unions are destroyed. Friendship, all but impossible. Marxist human alienation is complete now.

    Besides, the workers are all subject to firing after this sick game is over and the end of the film. That is quite clear. This is a grim circle of hell. The plant may not last another three months, for all we know. I have no doubt that the owner will repeat this sick game once again. That is fully my expectation — it seems heavily implied. All in the name of the bottom line, a little more profit. Who cares how many the game destroys. This is why the ending is devastating, because we know it will only repeat.

    We are defeated before we even start playing in the game of human capitol. Perversely, as you note often, wage slavery is something we are forced to value above all humanity and art. That is the point of a Dardenne film, and it is the point of all their films. There is never any winning, except perhaps through loving and supporting one another, and that is an impossibility here. Nobody wins, they just survive from paycheck to paycheck – From payday loan to payday loan – From Prozac to meth.

    Nobody wins in the Darwinian realm of capitalism, except maybe the 80 people who own most of the wealth on the earth. This is a harrowing film that manages to make Sandra’s simple story reflect the many untold stories of so many workers who face similar circumstances every single day all over the world – under late stage capitalism.

    As far as performances, I honestly didn’t even recognize Marion Cotillard until well into the film, such is her utterly believable and devastating underplayed Bressonian performance. The camera holds on Cotillard’s face for most of the film as she becomes this absolutely driven woman who MUST hold her job. The other characters, some indifferent, some trying to care, some repellent, all ring true. We treat one another horribly to keep even a miserable job.

    Human beings step on one another to find a place as slaves to capital. It is so cruel and inescapable… And exhausting, often fueled by drugs, as you note.

    I applaud The Dardennes for staying true to their politics and aesthetics as much as I applaud Jennifer Kent for making a film so brutally honest about female and childhood trauma in the guise of a supernatural genre film like The Babadook.

    In the days of Pixar and imbecilic cinema – conformist product designed to make us all stupid and blind consumers and workers – it is so important to celebrate the work of those rare directors who manage to retain a degree of artistic integrity, kept separate from a capitalist ethos. I think that critics must use their privilege – we have a moral imperative – to support and highlight filmmakers who try to shed light on humanism, trauma, and the plight of workers & women in particular, especially during these last Dark Ages in which capitalism is the only “winner.”

  6. Gwendolyn, I agree with all you say of course. I would argue the association with Bresson, whose work I admire. But the Dardennes don’t force actors to be monotone mannequins, “models” and the like–I appreciate the aesthetic, but from a strictly intellectual standpoint.

    To Paul, yes indeed, ego-fulfillment is very much tied to what passes for criticism. I’m not talking about the grubby nonsense that goes on in the ugly mass media, but venues like the New Yorker, with all the heirs to Pauline Kael and her ilk. Cute wordsmithing, love of one’s own voice, and rubbing shoulders with the famous is a sure way to degrade criticism. Anyone with the most superficial knowledge of the discipline knows this. But people venerate Kael, including some who should know better.

  7. Just to clarify, in referring to Cotillard’s acting in this film as “Bressonian,” I mean that as the highest compliment!

    I never find the acting in Bresson films to be “robotic” or monotone — quite the contrary! The astonishing realism of the performances in Bresson films are much more true to life than most of the scenery-munching that passes for “acting” these days.

    Consider Antoine Monnier in THE DEVIL, PROBABLY or François Leterrier in A MAN ESCAPED. Their realist and exquisite performances are absolutely stunning as a direct result of working with Bresson, who may have written about actors as “models,” but managed to get performances from his actors that are as low key and realistic as actual people in a documentary. What an accomplishment.

    The Dardenne brothers repeatedly refer to Bresson as a major influence — even their working method with actors is almost exactly the same as that of Bresson. Without the influence of Bresson (and other directors who valued “doing much less”) – I hardly think we would have the outstandind work of directors such as Denis, Dumont, Martel and LaFosse, for example. So many of the greatest living directors owe a tremendous debt to Bresson, and certainly not just in the area of acting and performance.

    I am always deeply puzzled to find that some actually find Bresson’s actors to be in any way “robotic.” Even Robin Wood, who admittedly found Bresson “difficult,” came to “cherish and love (and not just admire intellectually)” the work of Bresson and the realism of performances in his films.

    Robin Wood himself shed significant light on how best to approach Bresson’s work, when he said, “I think everyone should have their moment in grappling with Bresson when his style (especially his way with actors) should frustrate and irritate you, because this is part of the process of shedding your own ideas about cinema and coming to understand Bresson’s.” Oddly, I have never really found the acting or directing of Bresson irritating or frustrating in the slightest. Quite the opposite really! I find his films very liberating and free of artifice. I was drawn to his work and wanted to see more and more.

    But I do very much understand what Wood was driving at — and Wood’s words on Bresson may be easily applied to the Dardenne brothers. Wood said, ” Bresson is difficult because his style is like a language spoken by almost no one else; you have to learn it before you can follow his films properly.” I think that is probably true of the work of the Dardennes to an extent. It is a matter of engaging in a different language of acting, so to speak.

    For some, watching a film such as Rosetta is a grueling and difficult experience, but for others it is an uplifting and revelatory experience. Some dismiss Two Days, One Night. One prominent critic says “it’s a slow, flat and unsurprising film. The best one can say about it is that it’s watchably dull.” He arrogantly dismisses the film and calls Cotillard’s performance just another “station of the cross,” whatever that is supposed to mean (?)

    For some, engaging in the cruel soul-destroying and monotonous realities of a desperate and humiliated working class female is a crushing bore, but like you, I celebrate the Dardennes for exposing the cruelties of capital – as much as I celebrate all of the outstanding performances in the film, especially the work of Cotillard.

    Frankly, I am continually stunned that any great films are still actually being made (and finding even limited distribution) in the new Dark Ages of late stage capitalism – in which everything is dumbed down and infantilized.

    We live in a time in which any great or risk-taking art is routinely devalued. This makes it even more crucially relevant to champion great art, films, books, and music.

    Great writing, Chris!

  8. Gwendolyn,
    Not to make a long case out of this, but I admire Bresson. No need to quote Robin. Regarding Bresson’s influence on the Dardennes and others, we have to trust the tale. Dumont resents the constant associations of his work with Bresson’s , for reasons that are fairly obvious. He too admires Bresson. Outside of a “realist” aesthetic (I use the term with caution), I see not much of Bresson in the Dardennes.

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