Talking Movies: ‘Two Days, One Night’ takes a hard look at how financial hardship can shatter group solidarity

Two Days, One Night screens through Feb. 19 at FilmScene

Lessons that we can immediately ascertain from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s intriguing film Two Days, One Night include the following: sometimes the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job and also that, even in Belgium, poverty still sucks.

The film’s main character, Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, confronts these uncomfortable realities in nearly every scene. Sandra is a working class mom with two young kids and a husband working as a waiter; the films immediate focus is her history of depression, her somewhat troubling prescription drug habit and her inability to get a grip on her hairstyle and a nine-to-five shift at a solar panel factory.

After returning from months of depression-related sick leave, Sandra learns that the fate of her job is now in the hands of her coworkers. Since the factory has proven its ability to get along without her, her boss has decided that the fate of her job is up to her co-workers: Either they vote to reinstate Sandra to her former position, or they vote to keep their yearly bonuses of as much as 1,000 Euros each, because the company allegedly cannot afford to do both. Such a choice is absurd and probably illegal in any country with good labor lawyers, but nonetheless, it forms the emotional center of the film.

Sandra must now spend the upcoming weekend going to her co-workers and convincing at least nine of them to give up their bonuses in support of her cause. The ensuing 70 minutes are, not surprisingly, fraught, stressful, confrontational and sometimes violent. The Dardennes expertly meld the vocabulary and fragility of Sandra’s clinical depression with the grinding oppressiveness of working-class life to create a situation in which Sandra comes to question her own worth, since it is constantly being defined almost exclusively by one’s utility to the forces of production or contributions in normally defined social and economic ways.

Those critical of the European welfare state as too coddling will be heartened to learn that working class life for Belgians seems to consists more of mini-pizzas and orange drink than of French wine and brioche. They will also be pleased with the Dardennes’ portrayal of the basic human instinct towards profit. Co-workers throughout the film forthrightly tell Sandra that they value the money more than her employment, success, family solvency or psychological recovery.

While Sandra struggles to maintain her pride and desire not to seem like a burden or a beggar to her work colleagues, many of them display an utter lack of solidarity as workers, feeling that if she is not fired, one of them eventually may be. We are led to the quite-depressing conclusion that government policies and human sympathy are not able to overcome the cruel logic of the free market, wherein working-class people make heartless decisions to the detriment of people much like them.

Two Days, One Night has plenty of problems as a film. The pacing seems off in significant portions of the movie, the settings throughout are unvaried (though working-class neighborhoods throughout Belgium perhaps do all look pretty much the same) and there is a little too much reliance on the juxtaposition of Cotillard’s star power (La Vie en Rose; Rust and Bone; The Immigrant) recast in a smaller, more vulnerable role.

Nonetheless, American audiences will be reminded that, though the setting is different, the choice of humanity versus jobs is one certainly familiar to us as well: Two Days, One Night is the humanization of larger social choices in the context of one woman and her family.

In the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx talks about the idea of a ‘reserve army of labor,’ the chronically unemployed or underemployed workers which capitalism needs as a constant threat to keep employed workers in line, frightened and motivated to increase production without a corresponding increase in wages. A certain amount of unemployment or underemployment is always needed to make sure the workers who are employed appreciate that fact and consistently see their employers, rather than their co-workers, as best representing their interests. Two Days, One Night is at its heart a cinematic illustration of this phenomenon, but it also asks us to consider whether this choice still exists in the world of post-industrial Europe and, more importantly, whether more human concerns and sympathies should transcend class loyalties. Class divisions in an economic sense certainly still exist, but Two Days One Night asks us if we should see more personal sympathies and friendships as even more essential.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 170.

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