"Do I have your vote?"
Once would scarcely imagine that a film about pending unemployment and solar panels, played out over a series of fourteen (give or take) conversations, would amount to the year’s most arresting, even thrilling, cinema experience. Leave it, then, to the socially conscious Dardenne brothers of Belgium to quietly surprise. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is an employee at a solar panel manufacturing plant, long on sick leave for crippling depression, who is poised to be laid off. The decision is placed in the hands of her co-workers on the factory floor, who are instructed that, if Sandra is kept on, they must forego their annual bonus. For the company’s managers it comes pre-packaged as fiscal responsibility. For the workers it may be a question of livelihood.
Solidarity has all-but vanished from the modern lexicon. Once a catch-cry of resistance and byword for union action, it has little meaning for employees left living paycheck to paycheck on short-term contracts, struggling to make end’s meet and retreating to enclaves from one corner of the city to another at the close of business. The executive decision to put Sandra’s fate to a vote may wear the false veil of democracy, but is rather a cruel abdication of responsibility. It should be little surprise when, in Sandra’s absence the vote goes against her, 14-2. An appeal to the director buys her a weekend to make her case to those fourteen coworkers, confronted one by one.
The scripts embraces the inherently episodic constraints of this quest of conversion, trailing the succession of meetings between Sandra and her co-workers, interspersed with exchanges with her family as the hours whittle down. Threatening to be monotonous at the outset, this very repetition is what elevates Two Days, One Night from intriguing to brilliant. The unaffected and unobtrusive simplicity of the filmmaking, from predominantly handheld camerawork to near-absence of a score, keeps the focus squarely on the conversations themselves, and encourages us to adopt Sandra’s nervous and interrogatory point of view. The repetition trains us to scrutinize Sandra’s erstwhile saviours – to dissect their deflections and excuses, to scour the edges of the frame for a hint as to their means. We judge their homes, cars and clothes, forced to wonder how much they could possibly need to deny Sandra’s plea in good faith.
It inherently plays off our own prejudices – for how can we assess someone’s life from a vignette? To her credit, Sandra declines to do so, defending her doubters to her loved ones, even as the rejections gnaw at her already fragile mental health. Yet our scrutiny, once at work, inevitably turns itself towards Sandra. Her incessant pill-popping to combat the marshaled armies of depression, against the gentle pleas of her husband, testifies against her. The mind inevitably questions, in an unsettling rendition of the Louis C.K. “but maybe…” routine, whether Sandra really is a good co-worker, whether her illness may disqualify her, whether the sacrifice she is demanding of others is deserved –
Deserved. And there’s the rub. The action urges us not to tacitly accept the mindset that asks whether a worker ‘deserves’ to have a job. Every figure in the story is forced to grapple with the moral calculus of personal benefit, corporate expediency, community need and individual suffering – and so are we. To the hard laws of the market, Sandra is forfeit (and if not her, then another body on the production line would be deemed unnecessary to maximise efficiency) – and yet society would further stigmatise her for seeking recourse in unemployment benefits. To compound the insult, she is not situated in a declining heritage industry, but in solar power – in the vanguard of a different kind of liberal consciousness. Yet would those families seeking to outfit their homes with glistening panels for the earth’s sake pay more to ensure a better standard of life for the plant’s workers – or simply shop around for the best deal? And when that value system implicitly guides our economies and society, can we be surprised to find executives staring out from their top-floor offices at the peons below like The Third Man’s Harry Lime in the Ferris wheel, counting the number of dots he could afford to spare? (“Free of income tax, old man – the only way you can save money nowadays” Orson Welles chortles).
By journey’s end Two Days, One Night has grown as riveting and stomach churning as any thriller in this or any year, Sandra’s salvation or damnation never quite certain until the final minute. Even then, there’s plenty worth having an argument about. The challenge to the audience by the Dardennes is never explicit, and never crowds out the human drama, but it is potent - and timely. For although Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century may be a bestseller and Joseph Stiglitz can pack town halls around the world, escalating inequality and its costs can seem arbitrary and academic without a face. It is too easy to suppose our struggles are universal struggles, and forget for how many a few weeks off work or the loss of a bonus can send a family hurtling towards poverty. One may not have expected Marion Cotillard to be the face we needed– but it is a pleasure to see cinema is still full of surprises.
Deux jours, une nuit (2014) Written and Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Cinematography by Alain Marcoen, Starring Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione