A Cruel Setup, or Not? / a review of Two Days, One Night

With Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit), directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne pose a radical question about crisis and solidarity. Once again, the Belgian brothers use a bleak socio-economic situation to reflect on Western society.

Returning from a temporary break from her job, Sandra hears on a Friday that she has been voted out of her job. The factory she works in is struggling and offered its employees a choice: either they could keep their end-of-year-bonusses, or Sandra could keep her job. A cruel set-up, or is it? The Dardennes answer this question in two ways, by showing both the moral and the practical struggle in hard times.

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Shot in the brothers’ signature style, with roving handheld camera’s shooting uncompromising long takes filmed with natural light, the Dardennes look us straight in the eyes and reach for our conscience. Luckily for Sandra, her friend Juliette and some other loyal co-workers manage to convince the manager to organize a second vote on Monday. Encouraged by her husband, Sandra undertakes a laborious mission to visit all her colleagues over the weekend to try to convince them to change their votes. Like a modern-day Sisyphus, fragile Sandra, played au naturel by French actress Marion Cotillard, encounters all possible emotions and reasons her colleagues could have. During two days and one night she gets yelled at because she’s “stealing” bonuses and asked for forgiveness through instant confessions of guilt. But she’s also confronted with the struggles her co-workers have, some financial and some of a more abusive nature.

The Dardennes are known for their naturalistic approach to drama, told from the personal perspective of the working class in conflict with society’s dominant norms and standards. Two Days, One Night masterfully shows how Sandra’s instinct for survival clashed with her moral compass at every step of her endeavor. At some point she reaches for Xanax to bear the fear and insecurity she’s feeling.

Although the Dardennes force you to see things from Sandra’s perspective, duped by a manager who wants to cut costs, it’s not the only way this injustice can be interpreted. During a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, where Two Days, One Night premiered earlier this year, the Dardennes described solidarity as an attitude or behavior that is not self-evident: “To be solidary you have to sacrifice. It is not a natural thing to do.” In other words, it is something we have learned to do, and now have perhaps forgotten. As the Dardennes said, “Solidarity is not a moral act in and of itself, but can also be a practical decision.” In other words, the capitalist mindset is not just that of the manager; Sandra’s co-workers are as much a part of this crisis.

To find a suitable ending for the film, the brothers said they continuously asked each other to put oneself in the other man’s shoes. Which, it seems, is easier said than done. The ending of the film offers an emotional twist that sets Sandra’s efforts during the weekend in a bleak new light. NH

Written for the festival daily of the Golden Apricot Film Festival,  2014 Yerevan (Armenia) / daily #6– 19th of july 2014

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