Jean-Pierre and Luc, known together as the Dardenne Brothers, have crafted another sneak attack on our sense of social justice with their latest picture, Two Days, One Night. In the last twenty years, films such as The Kid With a Bike, L’Enfant, The Silence of Lorna, Rosetta and La Promesse have focused on the overriding concern of these two vibrant, compassionate, humanist filmmakers: the desperate struggle of the working class, and the borderline criminal class, to not only earn a living wage within our heartless economic climate, but to also retain – or discover for the first time – their self-esteem, or at least their capacity to care for their fellow human being. This is the theme of Two Days, One Night, perhaps their most timely and incisive film yet. It puts several human faces on the cruel calculus of “profits above people” which seems to be the only factor at play in the business world’s headlong rush to the bottom line.
Set in a nameless working class French suburb over the course of a sunny, summer weekend, the Dardenne’s kinetic handheld camera accompanies Sandra (Marion Cotillard, who is tremendous), a wife and mother of two kids, as she embarks on a campaign to get her job back. Her fellow employees were given a choice: Accept a bonus of a thousand euros each and Sandra, who has been on sick leave, is laid off, or forgo the bonus to keep Sandra on the assembly line. In an ironic touch, the company they work for manufactures solar panels, which tells us that even the highly-touted new jobs in renewable energy industries will gladly be sacrificed if a company can save a few bucks. As Sandra knocks on doors and makes phone calls, cajoling, pleading, even reluctantly guilt-tripping her fellow workers into surrendering their bonuses, we come into intimate contact with the near-desperate, paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle of the wage slave.
We also learn that Sandra has had problems with depression - she is prone to crying jags - that she lacks confidence; that her marriage may be unstable. But, even though she is expendable in the eyes of her boss, her troubles don’t seem to be factors in the decision made by her co-workers.
As she pays her visits to several of them, trying to convince a majority to change their minds (she needs 9 out of 16 to vote to keep her), we learn that all of them have their own needs and issues, which they believe the thousand extra euros will help ameliorate. This is perhaps the cruelest equation of all. Without needing to explicitly say so, the Dardennes make it clear that once those euros are spent, the economic hardships will return, and Sandra will still be out of a job. Some of her colleagues take her side, and these scenes are the most moving in the film; others angrily refuse, forcing her to assess her own sense of self-pity.
The filmmakers’ approach to their story – free of music, calculated art direction or aesthetic stylization – can sometimes take awhile to warm up to. Scenes can feel repetitious, and the blandness of the surroundings is almost claustrophobic. But this is all part of the brother’s documentary-like design, their insistence on our identification with Sandra’s grueling, debasing campaign. How far would we go to keep our jobs? Whom would we sacrifice? What part of our soul is for sale? For Sandra, the answer arrives in the film’s final, unexpected sequence.
This review first appeared on The Restless Critic blog.