Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
On a Friday afternoon, Sandra is lying in her bed when her cell phone rings. On the other line is Juliette, her friend and co-worker, who solemnly informs Sandra that she has been fired from her job at the solar panel manufacturing plant where they both work. But there’s a catch: Sandra wasn’t simply fired by her superiors. She was voted out by her co-workers, who were given the choice of either choosing to retain Sandra’s job, or each accepting a one-time 1,000-euro bonus. Nearly all of them chose the bonus. Sandra and Juliette decide to immediately confront their boss and demand a revote – this time, a blind ballot scheduled for Monday morning.
That is the set-up for Two Days, One Night, the masterful new film by the Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) who, like Robert Bresson, are capable of conveying tremendous emotion and lyricism without the assistance of special effects, music, or eloquent dialogue. Their subjects are ordinary people, usually employed in blue-collar jobs like industrial plants or factory assembly lines, who face critical moral and ethical decisions in compressed periods of time. This time, the crucial decision isn’t faced by Sandra, but by her 18 coworkers who each must decide whether to take the money or save Sandra’s job. Sandra must decide how she will plead her case when she personally pays each of them a visit over the course of the weekend. Call it 12 Angry Underpaid Men.
The premise for this story sounds simpler than it actually is. Sandra (played in a remarkable performance by Marion Cotillard) hasn’t just been missing work – she suffers from manic depression and could possibly be addicted to anti-depressants. Had her depression been affecting her work in an adverse way? Why had she been away from work for so long? Perhaps more importantly, how aware are Sandra’s co-workers and bosses in regard to her mental and emotional instability? These questions are never fully answered, although we do learn early on that the plant’s foreman Jean-Marc (played in brief appearances by the Dardennes’ favorite actor, Olivier Gourmet) has taken a disliking to her, and opined his fellow employees to accept the bonuses.
Another complicating factor is Sandra’s family. She is married to Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works as a chef at a local restaurant, and has two pre-adolescent children. While Manu is a supportive and loyal spouse, it appears that Sandra is the family’s main breadwinner. If Sandra loses her job, all hell could break loose. If Sandra keeps her job, her 18 co-workers will be denied the bonuses they were promised, and will be forced to face the scapegoat on a daily basis. And while Sandra and her family are by no means affluent, they certainly seem better off than many of the plant’s other workers – some of whom have to take second jobs on the weekends or rely on their own spouses for additional income (Juliette’s husband is apparently a successful mechanic, which in the eyes of Jean-Marc and his posse, constitutes hypocrisy when Juliette comes to the aid of Sandra).
In the background, the not-so-subtle undercurrent of Two Days, One Night is the ugly specter of capitalism, which at best engenders competition and rivalry between coworkers and at worst, leads to dehumanization, aggression, and the loss of self-worth. At first, the decision to fire Sandra or preserve the bonuses feels like an unusually cruel and vicious one, but as the movie goes along, it becomes clear that the employees are given little, if any, agency or free will in the day-to-day business of
Mitch and Murray Solwal Manufacturing. Even
the term “free will” isn’t really accurate, since Jean-Marc is eager to let his
workers know that there will be long-term repercussions for those who don’t take
his position. In this sense, the 16
co-workers who voted for Sandra’s removal are not really to blame, and as she
visits with them face to face over the course of the two days in the film,
their sympathy for her appears heartfelt and genuine – even the ones who can
hardly bear to tell Sandra that unfortunately, they cannot afford to give up
There is also an undeniable component of gender discrimination here too. Had Sandra been a man, would her job have been subjected to the same degree of public scrutiny and cruelty by her superiors? Is it not true that as a woman, Sandra’s ability to earn a living was judged as less important than that of her male counterparts? There is a reason that statistically women earn 77 cents to every dollar a man makes (U.S. figures), and that reason is not that women somehow intrinsically deserve less money, or are too submissive to ask for a raise. The reason is because capitalism is reinforced by male CEOs and male supervisors and predominantly male politicians who believe that corporations can have a say in how policy is shaped, but not women and especially not women who earn low wages. Some of the most unsettling sequences in Two Days, One Night occur when Sandra enlists the support of her female co-workers, one of whom seems sympathetic at first, but when her husband explodes in rage at the prospect of valuing friendship over monetary gain, she is forced to keep her mouth shut.
Earlier, I mentioned that capitalism leads to a loss in self-worth, which is another major recurring theme in Two Days, One Night. Already battling severe depression, Sandra understandably asks the question of whether her life is more important than the 18 others she will be adversely affecting should she keep her job. When she visits her co-workers, many of them are accompanied by their own young children; in one revealing moment, a father tells his young son to walk home so he does not have to witness him face Sandra and tell her that he cannot lend his support. The worthlessness is not only felt by Sandra, but by one coworker who is brutally mauled when he sympathizes with her, and another who breaks down into tears when he painfully admits that he moved away from God and voted for his bonus on Friday.
Because after all, what is the right thing to do? Juliette is certainly a close friend of Sandra’s, but for the others who do not know her as well, what difference does one expendable co-worker’s livelihood make (especially when it is explained by Sandra’s boss that during her prolonged absence, the company realized her job was an essentially unnecessary one to fill)? In a perfect world, the right thing to do would be for Sandra to stand up on a table and hold a “UNION” sign while everyone walks out in solidarity. But the Dardennes know that such a world does not exist. The management at Solwal may be completely unscrupulous, but they’re also a byproduct of a larger bureaucratic chain of command systematically suppressing oppositional voices. Sandra is hardly a model revolutionary – she can barely stay awake for extended periods of time, and is always scrambling to find a quick pair of Zoloft to pop.
There may be an inevitable sense that Two Days, One Night is socialist agitprop – the kind that Georg Dreyman probably would have written for the 25th anniversary celebration of the GDR. But somehow, the Dardennes (who themselves must be applauded for rebuffing the lure of the quick Hollywood buck) succeed in positioning the movie less as politically radical and more as a complex character study of a deeply torn individual who, perhaps on the heels of joining the Marxist front, must first determine if her own life is worth advocating for. Of course, the sordid irony is that in the event of Sandra’s pleas proving successful, her allies will have done nothing but jeopardize their own financial and vocational security in the end. It’s not unlike Newton’s Third Law, the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction. But as the penultimate showdown between Sandra and her boss demonstrates (a showdown where politicking is coolly commended and rewarded), loyalty and self-worth are personal commodities that have no price tag.
Rating: 4 stars