“Two Days, One Night” consolidates the reputation of the Belgium brothers, Jean and Luc Dardenne, as the foremost exemplars of a social conscience of world cinema, with a kind shout-out to Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, and John Sayles. Their 1996 breakout success, “The Promise,” with its focus on the exploitation and abuse of illegal immigrant laborers, returned a welcome degree of moral sobriety to independent cinema at a time when many new aspiring filmmakers were resorting to decadent scenarios in a desperate bid for attention.
Furthermore, as it turned out, the compassion they expressed in “The Promise” emanated from a sincere and deep commitment to the struggles of the have-nots in a brutally obtuse world of “globalized” economies. Over the course of the next 16 years, with such deservedly acclaimed films such as “L’Enfant” and “Les Fils,” they continued their advocacy on behalf the poor and working-class, but without descending into shrill agitprop that incidentally happens to be cinema.
If that were the case, in fact, they probably would have abandoned filmmaking altogether and simply resorted to social media to get their messages across. Rather, in the tradition of literary humanists such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, they appreciate narrative art for its own sake. Hence, their characters they care about are conceived as complex, three-dimensional human beings, complete with flaws and idiosyncrasies.
Take, for example, the character Marion Cotillard portrays in “Two Days, One Night,” Sandra, a working-class mother who, in a cruel scheme devised by her employer, is “downsized” by her fellow employees at a solar panel factory: While she is absent during a sick-leave attending to her mental health, management obliges them to vote on whether to keep her and work fewer hours, or to have her fired and earn a 1,000 Euro bonus.
Sandra and her husband, Manu, have only recently moved out of a social housing project, and this threatens to undo all their gains and return the family to poverty. However, even when taking into account her desperate predicament, Sandra’s ostentatious wallow in despair throughout much of the film, which includes a suicide attempt, almost alienates the audience.
With the assistance of a compassionate co-worker who voted against her firing, Sandra embarks on a mission to meet each one of her fellow employees face-to-face and have them reconsider their decision with a new vote she has persuaded her supervisor to allow, this time using a secret ballot.
This ingenious structure of the plot allow the Dardenne brothers to make their most damning statement about capitalism, as Sandra’s ex-fellow co-workers, and even those she regarded as friends, are one-by-one forced to rationalize or even justify their self-interest to Sandra’s face. In one particularly brutal and cogent scene, a young man physically assaults his middle-aged father when the latter apologizes to Sandra for voting against her.
A few however, retain their integrity and agree to a re-vote for her sake. At the end, avoiding both banalityand improbability, the Dardenne brothers surprise the audience with a conclusion that manages to be a little different from what might have been expected, something that is both inspiring and moving, but without betraying the brutal realism that precedes it.
“Two Days, One Night” is currently at the Cine Arte Normandie
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May 12, 2017
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