Film of the week: Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers and Marion Cotillard aim to thaw out wage-slave society.

Tony Rayns
Updated:

from our September 2014 issue

Although it doesn’t look or behave like a Hollywood feelgood movie about personal growth, Two Days, One Night is in essence just such a film. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who created the character for Marion Cotillard after meeting her during the shoot of Rust and Bone (2012), focus their film on Sandra Bya, a working-class mother who has had a nervous breakdown.

Returning to her husband and kids from the hospital, she finds that she’s lost her job in a small factory making solar panels. Her boss Dumont has given her 16 workmates the choice between having her back or working longer hours and receiving a bonus (the underlying problem is that the company has discovered it can make do without her, although competition from Asia is also a factor) and most of them have opted for the cash. She learns that the workshop foreman Jean-Marc lobbied against her.

Egged on by her saintly husband Manu and her more-than-supportive workmate Juliette, Sandra asks Dumont to ballot the workers again, in secret this time, and spends a weekend canvassing her colleagues one by one, hoping to win them over to her side. Some of them refuse to budge and the setbacks threaten Sandra’s mental equilibrium, but there’s enough good news to keep her going. No spoilers here, but the film ends with Sandra at her happiest, seemingly on the road to recovery at last. Feelgood or what?

The directors dramatise Sandra’s emotional highs and lows across the weekend, rather dubiously using the tight timeframe and the threat of a relapse into breakdown to generate low-key suspense. Predictably, her mood upswings follow encounters with workmates who promise to vote for her; these episodes climax after a particularly heartwarming ‘yes’ on the Sunday evening when she, Manu and newly single workmate Anne sing along with Them’s ‘Gloria’ on the car stereo.

Equally predictably, her downswings follow refusals: three in a row on Saturday morning prompt a return home to rest and a nightmare in which her son drowns, and three more on Sunday morning prompt a Xanax overdose and a race to hospital to get her stomach pumped. The setbacks, though, are easily overcome – perhaps a little too easily since she’s back on the trail of elusive workmates just an hour after leaving the hospital.

As usual in Dardenne films, such melodramatic contrivances are softened by their integration into the naturalistic flow of incidents, by the overall sensitivity to social and economic realities and by the generally credible performances. (Their trademark ‘realism’ is hard-won: in this case, we’re told, there was a full month of rehearsals with the cast following two months of location-familiarisation exercises, all recorded on video to be minutely picked over.) Their insistence on filming in sequence probably also helps, although this particular script is by definition so episodic that it could not have made much difference either way. Cotillard is anyway integrated into a Dardenne ‘stock company’ which has been through these paces before.

Further careful contrivances underpin the narrative: the solar-panel workshop is small enough not to have a unionised workforce, so the issue of solidarity or non-solidarity with Sandra becomes strictly personal and isn’t complicated by labour politics, and the workmates Sandra has to plead with represent a precise cross-section of the Belgian small-town demographic, including a young black immigrant, an Arabic family, those struggling with the weekly bills, those looking to upgrade their patio and a couple of vicious and seemingly misogynistic men. There may well be small factories with this range of workers in provincial Belgium, but it’s more important to the directors that their characters should be fully representative of wage-slave society.

The film’s sociological aspect underpins its core fable of the vulnerable individual who gains strength and confidence by fighting her corner, greatly abetted by Cotillard’s very committed performance as a woman on the verge of another nervous breakdown. But you could equally read the film the other way round: with the feelgood thrust of the narrative serving to highlight the problems of competitiveness and lack of solidarity in present-day society. The Dardenne brothers are not exactly ‘old Labour’ nostalgists in the Ken Loach vein, but they are politicised moralists who want their films to deliver op-ed analyses as well as sentimental kicks. In terms of the British political spectrum, the way they finesse social commentary wrapped up in feelgood drama makes them not so much ‘New Labour’ as left-leaning Lib Dems.

 

In the September 2014 issue of Sight & Sound

Woman on the verge

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s tense redundancy drama Two Days, One Night follows a factory worker’s attempts to persuade her fellow employees to save her job. The directors discuss with Isabel Stevens the creative benefits of not giving a damn and why they can never resist the lure of long takes.

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