I Want to Live
By Julien Allen

Two Days, One Night
Dir Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium, Sundance Selects

“Je voulais savoir si tu serais d’accord de voter pour que je garde mon travail.” This sentence (which translates as “I wanted to know if you’d be prepared to vote for me to keep my job”) is repeated a total of eight times, word-for-word, by the heroine of Two Days, One Night. She asks the question to her coworkers in this way because she considers it the best way to ask it, but she also repeats it verbatim because she is eager to preserve the sanctity of the ballot box, so that all concerned are asked the same exact question. Even though the wording emerges organically from within her—it is a refined version of her hesitant first phone call, when she simply said what came naturally—it is nevertheless perfectly structured to serve its purpose. This purpose is clear to each addressee before a word is uttered (they all know why she’s come to talk to them, after all), but the question itself is ever so slightly delayed by a layer of gentle supplication, so that it ends up seeming like the easiest favor in the world. To make enormous things simple, without sacrificing any of their enormity, is a touchstone of the cinema of the Dardennes; a cinema in which—like the structuring of that central entreaty—nothing whatsoever is left to chance.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a married mother of two who has been informed, on a Friday afternoon just as she was preparing to return to work at the “Solwal” photovoltaic cell factory following a period of depression, that her coworkers have voted for her to be laid off so that they may draw their bonus of €1,000 each. A supportive colleague (one of two from sixteen who voted in her favor) lobbies the company’s CEO to allow the vote to be held again on Monday morning, on the basis that company foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) may have improperly influenced some of the staff. Sandra therefore has one weekend in which to absorb this news and, at the insistence of her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), to convince her colleagues, one by one, to think again.

The setup is thus based on a typically barbaric piece of entfremdung (from Marx’s theory of alienation, wherein workers are deliberately pitted against each other in order to maximize value for the employer) the like of which—when described in these simple terms—would seem horrifying were it not being practiced everywhere in the developed world with impunity. What the Dardennes have done is to introduce a right of appeal. They’ve chosen to confront this socioeconomic phenomenon in the only way they know how: not with defeatism or anger but by formulating a bid for something different, for more fitting equipment to safeguard humanity’s future—compassion, solidarity, and self-sacrifice. As ever with the Dardennes, the central dilemma is demanding, perhaps more so than in any of their films, given the naked exposure of the film's structure, plotted and contrived openly from the start like a ticking-clock thriller à la High Noon, or a 12 Angry Men numbers game—but if one can accept the integrity of Sandra’s (and her coworkers’) predicament, the humanism of Two Days, One Night will repay the favor. It begins in the way that the Dardennes’ previous film, The Kid with a Bike, ended: with a gesture of grace (from Suzanne, Sandra’s colleague who lobbies for the vote to be repeated) that announces a belief in humanity’s potential. It then proceeds to explore why it might be worth fighting for. Sandra may be one person, but her story is that of millions.

As Sandra tracks down and approaches each of her coworkers, the fragments of reasoning behind the initial 14-2 vote begin to emerge.It doesn’t take long for it to be made clear—as if it needed saying—that €1,000 is a lot of money: these are the “working poor” whose condition has been intensified by the current global recession and who even now are being singled out by their governments for further punishment in the form of austerity cuts; only those who don’t moonlight can really afford to give up their bonuses. Others have obligations to their families that would instinctively and justifiably outweigh their obligations to Sandra. A picture of collective victimhood gradually materializes and as Sandra realizes the harm her behavior appears to be doing to her coworkers (there is violence, on two occasions) she retreats. Every step of the way, she is anxious, questioning her actions and their effect on her or her colleagues. “I don’t want to be a beggar; I don't want to screw up people’s lives . . .” Never once does Sandra, or the film, question or judge the coworkers’ choices; she even admits on one occasion that given the equivalent choice herself, she would have voted for the bonus. She knows they are all underdogs, and if she will occasionally insist when certain colleagues refuse her, this only reflects the varying strength of her resolve. In asking them to vote again, she is in fact giving them all another chance, liberating some of them from their consciences. In an especially poignant moment, one of them, Timur, breaks down in tears with gratitude at being offered a second opportunity to choose. Sandra is the catalyst: it is the coworkers who are afforded the option of heroism, by her actions.

Sandra’s encounters, some positive, others not, all slightly nuanced and all utterly engrossing, bring to mind the tralatitious structure and tone of a fable of La Fontaine or a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The relentless repetition of the context (why the ballot is being held again), of Sandra’s plea, and of one question she frequently receives in response (“How many of the others have accepted to lose their bonus?”) approaches liturgy. The effect seems at odds with the realism habitually associated with the Dardennes and might also shock, or at least distract those who would see them as the inheritors of Rossellini—a filmmaker who sought to capture the subjective and never resorted to conventional plotting. But if one examines the nature of the Dardennes’ realism a little more closely, one could conclude on the contrary that it remains entirely consistent with Two Days, One Night. To begin with—and it could explain why they soon abandoned documentary filmmaking—nothing in the Dardennes’s films is realistic because they simply point a camera at someone and wait for something to happen. Randomness, improvisation, or immaterial minutiae (“reality” itself) are not components. Their realism is meticulously manufactured: they rely on tangible, well-thought-out details to create it (in The Son, the use of carpentry grounds the characters, while providing a vehicle for the father and his son’s murderer to be brought together), but they will discard anything that doesn’t fit (despite it being a carpentry shop, there are no circular saws on view in The Son because the symbolism and/or the audience expectation would have been too heavy).

On acting, Luc Dardenne memorably said—when presenting The Kid with a Bike at the BFI—that a character who cries while eating a piece of toast is much better than one who just cries. Stylistically, the same applies. It isn’t enough to recognize monochrome colors, a handheld camera or an absence of nondiegetic music as tools of realism; one needs to appreciate the symbolic or tonal ways in which they are deployed: in The Kid with a Bike, as in Two Days, One Night, but especially Rosetta, the silence serves to amplify the climate of effort; in The Son, the camera is behind Gourmet because what happened to his son was behind his back; and because now we follow his gaze while seeing and sharing his vulnerability. Just as those choices were those of storytellers first and social realists second, so the choice of a brutally simple narrative conceit in Two Days, One Night is all the more appropriate to properly tell a story which they believe needs telling. Where some might see a deflating neatness to Two Days, One Night from filmmakers who have come to specialize in the “what is happening, here, exactly?” sensation, others will see a welcome development: a crystallization of a methodology which was really always there, characterized by a desire to create intensities, movements, and stresses which an audience can respond to viscerally. They have no impulse to document facts, any more than they have to paint pictures or compose memorable tracking shots.

If Bresson is often invoked when considering the Dardennes, it might be in part because they share with Bresson a desire for purification. Bresson wanted to remove the additives which he considered polluted film (theatricality, audience manipulation) and the Dardennes —all told, only a mite less formally rigorous—augment their characters’ struggles by discarding or minimizing elements (superficial beauty, music, exposition) external to the central message; elements which might have added color or enriched the paint, but which ultimately cloud the picture. When Sandra talks to her audience, they are—as with Bresson’s own audience—the active party: they are not told what to think, but it is what they think that ultimately matters, not what Sandra, who is a silent recipient, thinks. This purification has been pushed further with Two Days, One Night by the discarding of all narrative entropy or elaboration. By decorticating cinematic complexity in the way they do social complexity (never delving into the whys and wherefores of how such a company treats its workers), they arrive at something more raw and mortal—and thereby, potentially infinitely more complex.

There are scratches on the film, though, and one of them does concern the casting. The gamble the Dardennes have taken in stripping their story to its essential constituent parts exposes all the more their decision to cast Marion Cotillard, a bona fide Hollywood A-lister, as a downtrodden Belgian factory worker (Vanity Fair excitedly called it “glamming down”). The brothers’ caginess about their reasons implies a prosaic—and entirely forgivable—requirement to raise the necessary funds to make the film. Pleasantly surprised by the experience of working with Cécile de France on The Kid with a Bike and having watched the talismanic Jérémie Renier (who featured in La promesse aged fourteen) grow in prominence during his time with them, the Dardennes apparently alighted on Cotillard as the actress they needed to incarnate Sandra while co-producing Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. Yet any reservations one might have about their decision evaporate very quickly: Cotillard is simply transcendent, wholly inhabiting her character and drawing on all her generosity and humanity to draw us into Sandra’s predicament. Hers is a sorrowful performance, given that Sandra understandably relapses into her depression, but punctuated with rare and immaculately judged glimpses of levity and quiet jubilation when those moments for which the Dardennes are justly fêted (the minor daily redemptions) come to pass. Expertly directed, Cotillard’s rendition is stripped of artifice and her humility—crucial not just to our sympathies for her but to the character’s necessary, almost otherwordly saintliness—strongly brings to mind another actress whose craft was never altered by her Hollywood stardom: Ingrid Bergman (Sandra is a polar relative of Europa 51’s Irene). Olivier Gourmet as the foreman, Jean-Marc, is much discussed but never seen until the end when the final vote is cast, by which time “Sandra” has been reduced to a tick-box on a ballot, alongside the word “Bonus.” This quasi-mythical entrance risks distracting us from the film’s rigor, given Gourmet’s iconic status in the Dardennes’ world, but he is only very briefly onscreen.

A third, potentially deeper complication resides in the film’s reliance on the audience’s acceptance of Sandra’s (and her husband’s) pivotal decision to fight for her job. The Dardennes’ background in the labor movement has always informed their cinema, but by their deliberate refusal to let their films take sides or mount soapboxes, they have rightly escaped the easy tag of “political” filmmakers. The brothers have expressed their admiration for Ken Loach’s Raining Stones, precisely because unlike in much of Loach’s cinema, none of its main characters are mouthpieces for Loach’s political position: their drama was allowed to unfold unsullied by political discourse. By the same token, the audience is obliged to react with its gut to Two Days, One Night. Not everyone’s social morality should be taken for granted, nor will it necessarily take the same form as the Dardennes’. Perhaps, given Sandra’s health (it is hard to claim with any credibility that she has fully recovered, and even harder to imagine that a full-time factory job is the best thing for her), and given some of the ambiguities left dangling by the directors (there is no evidence that Jean-Marc ever coerced anyone; her husband appears to be dragging her into it because he won’t accept social housing; why would she or anyone else be more secure in their work if she were kept on?; and isn’t this really all just emotional blackmail?), not everyone in the audience will even support her quest. For those who don’t, Two Days, One Night could be quite aggravating. Doubters should be encouraged to consider the intrinsic value of the Dardennes’ film, whatever the outcome for Sandra and whatever the merits of her journey, which is in seeking out the imperative of solidarity in order for humanity to merit, and achieve, its survival. Even if one considers that she is not saved, it cannot be denied that some of the characters are.

What Two Days, One Night shares with Rossellini is that it ends where the story doesn’t: even with its ultra-conventional structure, it remains only a chapter in Sandra’s life. The final sequence reacquaints us with the familiar Dardennes motif of the protagonist walking away from us, with the camera on this occasion choosing not to follow. She will continue without us, and what may have touched us was only cursory, the length of a weekend in a lifetime. Sandra, observant and righteous—like Bresson’s Joan bidding to escape the furnace—is both a victim and a vessel for the Dardennes’ ultimate ambition, which is not realism, but truth. Theirs is a soft, passionate voice, pleading, imploring us to listen.