52 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: OVERVIEW #3

This entry was posted on October 7th, 2014

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By Tristan Pollack Teshigahara

9/23/14: Week 2/Two Days, One Night

Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are amongst the most socially conscious filmmakers in global cinema today. Their second feature, Rosetta (1999), gave rise to a new labor law that would protect adolescent workers in Belgium. The impact the film had on both the audience and the state was so profound that the law was named the Rosetta Law, after the film’s protagonist. The Dardenne Brothers do not make films that only affect themselves. Rather, they bring acute awareness to the most critical social, political and economic struggles that even today continue to be largely overlooked in contemporary cinema. Since La Promesse (1996), the Dardenne brothers have been perhaps the foremost torchbearers of a tortured and unflinching neo-realist filmmaking, as their films have been lauded for their consistency of style and themes of ubiquitous human struggle. Shooting primarily on location in their hometown of Liege, Belgium, and casting an array of non-professional actors and professional actors, the Dardennes focus their unsparing lens on the spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical consequences of unemployment.

The unique shooting style employed by the Dardennes, perhaps mimicked by other filmmakers, but never surpassed, is often described as naturalistic, but that definition undermines their seemingly simple yet complex approach to capturing realism. Every director may come face-to-face with the limitations of documentary aesthetics, but the Dardennes have offered their own solution to this possible quandary: they allow the viewer to recognize the allegory embedded within each film, giving the viewer the ethical freedom to choose.

Two Days, One Night (2014), the Dardenne’s seventh feature, puts allegory in the forefront. The film opens with Sandra (Marion Cotillard) alarmed by the ringing of her cellphone; she takes the call much to her dismay. Recovering from her sick leave, she learns that the majority of her co-workers have voted to take their bonus (1,000 euros each) in lieu of keeping her on the staff. Initially, Sandra is too demoralized to stand up for herself, but fortunately, her friend and coworker Juliette (Catherine Salée), and Sandra’s husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), show her the support that she needs the most. Juliette manages to confront their company manager M. Dumont (Baptiste Sornin) in the afternoon, persuading him to recast the vote amongst their co-workers with a secret ballot to be held on a Monday morning. Facing fourteen out of sixteen votes against her, Sandra has only two days to track down those coworkers who she believes may consider changing their votes; she reluctantly must visit each of them over the weekend in order to convince at least seven of them to forfeit their bonuses so that she may retain her employment. Thus begins Sandra’s moral journey, as she and her husband drive across Liege, and she simultaneously battles her own debilitating depression.

What comes next could easily be commonplace or feel like an exposé of Belgium’s blue collar workers, but in the eyes of the Dardennes we are given insight into each possible perspective. As we follow Sandra going door-to-door to the home of each co-worker, it seems we are being asked the same question that she repeatedly asks of them: “There is a secret ballot being held on Monday, will you vote for me so I can stay off the dole?” The results vary each time, but leaves either Sandra or her co-worker in a tenuous emotional and moral state. Suddenly, the overarching meaning of employment changes and becomes specific to each individual. For some, the bonus means supporting a family or providing for a child’s education, or affording home renovations, and in the case of Alphonse (Serge Koto), keeping his own contracted position. In essence, the film draws the viewer into her life-determining dispute, enabling us to form our own perspective.

We soon learn in the denouement of Two Days, One Night that all of Sandra’s travails and sorrow are not in vain. We grow to understand (with her) that it is not her job that she’s fighting for, but something much larger. This is most poignantly conveyed in a very telling exchange between Sandra and her husband as they drive to the home of another co-worker. Here, Sandra stops Manu from turning off the song playing on the car radio. She tells him not to pity her, and then proceeds to turn up the volume of Petula Clark’s ballad “La Nuit N’en Finit Plus” to full blast. The sorrowful tone that emanates from the car evoke and accentuate the pivotal change that has occurred within her. She knows that her job and her family’s livelihood matter the most, but more importantly, she recognizes that establishing a stronger sense of self is something that only she has the power to change. Undoubtedly, the epiphany that Sandra experiences proves to be a positive one: keeping a job is not about fighting for justice or fighting bureaucracy; it is about the way we fight for our lives.