Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian co-directors of Two Days, One Night, capture the spirit of a modern day Dickens, but without the maudlin Victorianism. The Belgian natives stick to the lower class in their films using a documentarian hand-held camera; frequently using available light, unknown actors, eschewing soundtracks, tracking shots and big budgets, but their movies are prickly with moral dilemmas and blockbusting emotional turns.
Two Days, One Night (2014) tells the story of Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who returns from a leave of absence at a solar panel factory to find she has been laid off by a vote of her fellow employees. Her co-workers were given the choice of keeping her on or receiving their bonus and voted 14-2 for the money. Married with two children and barely scraping by, Sandra has recently overcome a nearly debilitating bout of depression and is lately off the dole and out of social housing. Due to some purported tampering by a manager, the owner allows for another vote on Monday, giving Sandra the weekend to petition a majority of the others to vote for her, the titular two days and one night.
Marion Cotillard, easily the biggest star in a Dardenne film, is by no stretch a plain-Jane, but here with her fragile gaze and slightly hunkered gait, she is transformed into every haggard white worker in a rowhouse. Her eyes wilt and her smile fades and it is clear that her preference would be to shrink from the challenge if she weren’t buttressed by her longsuffering and loving husband and a plus-dosage of Xanax.
The Dardennes carefully hone sentiment down, keeping the tension of envy and bitterness off-balance and never fully settling blame anywhere. Sandra does not lash out, bemoaning unfairness, and her husband doesn’t shirk his role in bearing her burdens. Neither does he pile on his displeasure over her wavering and weakness. The end result is not the wholesale condemnation of some economic system, nor greed, nor race, nor any number of factors, but a bridging of factors that interplay with the human condition, both its virtues and vices.
Sandra is filmed frequently from behind, highlighting the straps of her shirt, bra and purse, like rigging to keep her upright, and the slight forward curve of her shoulders, as if cowering. She is never far from curling into bed, buckled from exhaustion and shame, but as she grows in confidence our view of her shifts and she is shot more in profile. By the end she is bolstered and she marches toward the camera undaunted by life.
Though there is an air of politicism in the Dardennes, the avoidance of soapbox storytelling is refreshing. The ostensible villain in the film, the boss who shifts responsibility to the employees, is shown throughout as a sympathetic character, and is even given the opportunity to be the hero at the end; and the person who is presented as the villain, once he appears, casts doubt on his own villainy. Those that won’t vote for Sandra make it clear that they aren’t voting against her, only voting for their bonus, and many have good reason to do so.
In our day of vapid social outrage, as ephemeral as the wifi it rides on, where the plight of the poor is thoughtlessly advanced as long as the cost is less than ten seconds on Facebook, Leviticus gives us some heady advice: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly,” (Lev. 19:15). Two Days, One Night exhibits this impartiality well. Some cannot help Sandra and they make it known. Frequently our judgments of the poor and needy are dehumanizing, denying them agency, but the movie does not reduce Sandra to a feckless leach. She is accepting of those who are in dire straits and is able to find strength outside of her immediate situation.
The Dardennes have a healthy distrust of technology. It is frequently an impersonal and disruptive part of modern society. Those most successful in resisting her plea are the ones who are able to avoid a face to face encounter with her. The film begins with a phone call interrupting Sandra in baking a tart for her kids, signalling the way technology draws attention from the people before us. For a society that is increasingly screen-centric this is a potent and needed charge.
Neither do the Dardennes stack the emotional deck in their favor. Rather, they force the audience to weigh each encounter, each response, whether to give of themselves to help others, whether to extend our sphere of care or to shrug and circle the wagons around our own families. It is an exercise in charity and one that is not focused on capitalism or corporate greed or other societal bugaboos, no, the movie is focused on the very simple matter of ourselves. The world is broken, yes, but outrage is inappropriate and in the moment ineffective. When the sacrifice is personal and not put off on the rich, the corporation, the state, oh Lord, who shall stand?