September 4, 2014 § 3 Comments

The Dardenne brothers’ latest, Two Days, One Night (a Franco-Belgian co-production) appears to be a simple film, its sunlit naturalism further illuminated by the compelling presence of Marion Cotillard in every scene. That simplicity, indeed transparency, is one of its virtues. It is also one of its subtleties, because the film’s subject goes much deeper than the story of Cotillard’s character. Sandra, a young working-class woman recovering from depression, is about to return to work when a phone call brings the news that she has been voted out of a job. This prompts immediate collapse and renewed recourse to Xanax. No, says her husband Manu, you must fight. And she does, with his help.

Those of us who remember French films of the 70s that celebrated strikes and factory occupations in the wake of 1968, are looking at a different world here, one where that kind of solidarity can no longer flourish, because employment is so often structurally insecure and non-unionised. At Sandra’s factory her 16 co-workers have been told to make a choice: receive their annual bonus of €1000 or give it up to keep her in work. Either way, management wins, not just financially. Neoliberalism’s pseudo-choices make it easy to manipulate a workforce.

One of Sandra’s two supporters argues for a second ballot, secret and free of the foreman’s intimidations. The boss is blandly amenable. Over a weekend she has to convince a majority to sacrifice self-interest. Sandra is no gutsy heroine; she is emotionally fragile and without a trade union to back her up. She has to plead with her co-workers one by one, knocking on their doors, like a beggar she says, although she is never abject. It’s hard for this shaky, vulnerable woman, humiliated by her role as supplicant, but she finds the courage to state her case, founded on personal need, for a livelihood and to belong in the world of work. She is never vehement or angry.

At first the film hinges, suspensefully, on the matter of changing minds, as if each answer would involve an ethical decision, the clear alternatives of altruism and self-interest. But a wish to show solidarity can be thwarted. Whether facing sympathy, evasion or even violent hostility, Sandra discovers the home lives of her fellow workers. We see sole breadwinners, others struggling to feed a family or support a child at university, or driven by low pay into second jobs in the black economy. Gradually, the ethical axis shifts and by dint of quiet observation the Dardenne brothers bring our attention to the wider, indeed global circumstances of Sandra’s situation. Implicit questions come to the fore. How can the powerless individual bring about change? How can solidarity be created and sustained when the working class no longer has collective strength? Their film is less about the final outcome of Sandra’s struggle to win the vote than about the process itself, and about shaming the ugliness of management’s divisive manoeuvre. It hints at how strength and dignity might be regained in a world of zero hours and curtailed workers’ rights.

Where does economic responsibility lie? With the individual, so politicians tell us, in so many ways. Self-employment is touted as the answer to unemployment. Entrepreneurship is extolled as a new kind of heroism. Interestingly, Sandra’s factory is part of this new world, its business making solar panels. What could appear more publicly virtuous in our times than creating jobs that will ‘save the planet’? Yet how can we save the planet if we cannot save ourselves and others from the logic of exploitation that underlies so much of this rhetoric?

Sandra’s position is that of the individual forced to act alone. But solidarity can begin outside the workplace, with the support of love and friendship. Were it not for these she would fail to overcome the sense of despair that rears up and threatens to crush her whenever she meets rejection. The film has no cause for triumphalism, but sunlight is its visual mood and in a scene where Sandra, Manu and a friend who has just left her bullying husband are driving together, the car is filled with a sunset glow as the three sing along to Van Morrison’s Gloria. This is a moment of defiant joy, and it’s notable that the film borrows its intermittent soundtrack from the 60s and the rebellion of rock (even when sung in French by Petula Clark).

If solidarity can exist outside the workplace, it can be built on. In the course of Sandra’s search for it we witness many small rituals of respect between colleagues: the handshakes that are an everyday part of French formality, the introductions to children. In fact, the children in this film, including her own, are extraordinary, perhaps emblematic; they give directions or show the way themselves when Sandra turns up at their doors looking for a father or brother. They are treated as equals and respond with according gravity and helpful good sense.

In looking for solidarity Sandra is strengthened, not least by finding that very capacity in herself.


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§ 3 Responses to TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

  • Yes – absolutely. A touching and important film. Well done Liz.

  • Jennie Mcdonnell says:

    This is the best review I have read of the film. To the point, and eloquent. Fleshing out these core aspects of the film. You should be reviewing for a major journal, paper. Thank you.

  • Martin Upham says:

    It’s a wonderful exposition of the impact of recession on ordinary lives, true social drama. Yet was there not something facile about the last scene? One can see that Sandra draws strength from her defeat, especially from the boss’s acknowledgement of her campaign and pleasure at her ability to take a moral stance. However she was surely the main breadwinner (since her husband worked in a fast food joint); that sunny ending didn’t work for me.

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