By Marshall Shaffer
In 1999, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrived on the world stage of cinema in a big way with “Rosetta,” a film that won them the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as global renown. That story, which they both wrote and directed, followed its eponymous 17-year-old protagonist as she battles for self-survival in an unfeeling Belgian capitalist system. In spite of all the setbacks she faces, however, Rosetta always summons the strength from within to get back on her feet and scrounge around again for a job.
“Two Days, One Night” arrives from the brothers 15 years later, who once again take an out-of-work female as their subject. Marion Cotillard stars in the film as Sandra, a struggling factory worker who learns she has one weekend to convince 16 coworkers to relinquish a bonus in order for her to stay on the company’s payroll. Such a daunting task would seemingly shock anyone out of lethargy and into tenacious survival mode.
Yet when the Dardennes first introduce Sandra, she lies motionless on her side and is content to simply an important phone call ring until it gets forwarded to voicemail. Throughout the film, Sandra appears to believe that going to fight for her job is a futile waste of her time and energy. Most of the push to continue the journey, in fact, comes from her rather saintly husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).
Much of Sandra’s lack of confidence is explainable by her personal struggles with depression (that might be a generalized description of the specific condition afflicting her, which seemed to resemble bipolar disorder). To focus solely on the personal, however, diminishes a whole world of social commentary in “Two Days, One Night.” This is the second time that the Dardennes have placed the imminent possibility of joblessness in front of their central character, and the response that follows has shifted from powerful pugnacity to alarming apathy.
When contemplated in tandem with “Rosetta,” the Dardennes’ “Two Days, One Night” comes across as quite the damning assessment in the recent evolutions of global capitalism. Even in spite of the iconography that the gorgeous Cotillard brings to the role, Sandra feels like an emblematic contemporary worker. Her workplace is so desensitized that the break room referendum that decides whether Sandra and her family have to go back on the government dole is taken without her knowledge, consent, or presence.
She’s a timid casualty of an austere institution, suffering from a systemic shell shock as much as anything else. The more that the Dardennes provide a sense of her world, the more justified she seems in refusing to expend the willpower to maintain such a shoddy status quo. “Two Days, One Night” certainly does not endorse the defeatism that Sandra often espouses, though it acknowledges that the societal conditions are ripe to induce it.
Though the capitalistic critique makes for interesting discussion, it is merely a fascinating undercurrent running below the surface of the film. Most of the Dardennes’ emphasis on economics focuses on the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice, a dialectic that Sandra must sway her way in at least half of her colleagues. Over the course of the weekend, she goes door-to-door begging them to reconsider their decision.
Everyone she talks to over the course of the film has a different reason or a distinct rationale that determines their response. This not only keeps “Two Days, One Night” compelling throughout, but it also provides a much broader mosaic of the working-class than could ever be possible by focusing on just one character. This nimble background/foreground dynamic makes the film the ultimate statement, combining the personal and the political into one riveting social realist drama.
“Two Days, One Night” opens this weekend at a/perture Cinemas downtown. Find showtimes and tickets HERE.