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When they see you, they’ll forget their bonus.

Two Days, One Night
(Deux jours, une nuit)
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Two Days, One Night is the first Dardenne brothers (that’s Jean-Pierre and Luc) picture I've seen.  Mind you, my forays into Belgian cinema have been few and far between of late (only In Bruges springs to mind). Their drama of workplace ethics and personal morals is blessed with an outstanding performance from the magnificent Marillion Cotillard, but suffers in attempting to sustain its loaded premise.


Following a period of illness, Sandra (Cotillard) is informed she is to lose her job at a solar panel factory. Her 16 co-workers have voted, and the majority have come out in favour of their bonuses; the employers have decided that they cannot afford both. Due to allegations of pressure brought to bear by foreman Jean-Marc (Oliver Gourmet), it is agreed a second vote will take place on the Monday morning. Sandra has the weekend to persuade her colleagues to keep her.


There’s a sense the Dardennes have over-nourished the issues Sandra must face. As well as it being vital for her to keep her job (her husband Manu, Fabrizio Rongione, doesn’t make enough to provide for their family alone), she was off work due to a nervous breakdown and continues to suffer from depression. Consequently, she is pill-popping throughout the weekend, her already traumatic and demeaning quest made so much worse. I have to admit, the brothers lost me when they contrived to throw in an overdose as part of the weekend’s attractions. Not because I had problems with believing Sandra could reach that point, but because it felt calculated and manipulative (particularly as she then manages to get up and out to ask a few more colleagues for votes before the day is over).


That aside, the Dardennes adeptly depict the nuances of a dilemma where nothing is as simple as the (ideal) answer of solidarity against the unscrupulous bosses thinking only of the bottom line. At one point Sandra even says she would vote for the bonus if she was in her co-workers’ shoes, although the final scenes suggest she was perhaps merely showing empathy for their situation. Which she does throughout. She can only attempt so much persuasion, because she fully understands the choice is not black and white.


The dilemma identifies itself as a moral one to some of her co-workers. In the most moving moment, one expresses his gratitude that she has come by, as he has been feeling so guilty about voting no. In this moment we also see just how considerate Sandra is, as she took the rap when he made an error as a new joiner. Others refuse to even speak to her, or become aggressive and even violent when asked, blaming her for the situation. In the background Jean-Marc has been calling those she visits, attempting to persuade them vote against her (at the end, he has the effrontery to ask her if she is happy “now you’ve stirred up shit”).


To others the choice is simply one of survival. They also have families to support and bills to pay. One even tells Sandra he can’t in conscience vote for her because it would be “a disaster for me”, but he nevertheless hopes the vote goes her way. So it is the motive behind the decision that counts. How they react, irrespective of whether they feel the need to vote for a bonus or retain her, announces their moral perspective.


It’s evident that the Dardennes are more broadly critiquing the basis of an entire system, one that bases happiness, meaning and validation on one’s ability to earn a crust of bread. A system that happily sacrifices scruples and any notion of an ethical framework.


We end up pretty much agreeing with all Sandra’s reasons not to go pleading with her workmates (“I’ll look like a beggar”), even if this is partly entrenched by her fragile mental state. Rongione is particularly measured and understanding as the husband attempting to be supportive in a delicate situation. He has to push her against her will. We, as much as Sandra, dread the next visit to someone who may say no. And then there’s the future; how she can possibly be comfortable at work in the event that she does win the vote? A significant number of those present would doubtless resent her for what they have lost.


As such, the Dardennes shift the framing with the final offer, to allow her perspective and clarity. Sandra is able to lift herself from the quagmire of this unfair battleground. She loses the vote, as equal ones are cast, but she knows she fought a good fight. More importantly, her boss calls her into his office to inform her she can come back to work in due course, when he doesn’t renew the contract for a fixed contract worker. It is a mirror to the situation she faced, particularly since the worker who would lose his job mulled a similar consequence before deciding it was right to vote her way. Quite possibly her boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) knows this, and he hoped for precisely such a means of regaining control of worker morale through exposing her own shortcomings. Through rejecting the option, Sandra embraces an inclusive regard for humanity her working environment has vied to eliminate. She moves a step closer to the envied bird singing merrily in the tree.


I was given pause a couple of times by the Two Days, One Night’s incidental choices. More than once, I expected a woman answering the door to assume her husband was having an affair with Sandra (it is Marillion Cotillard, after all) and I questioned the wisdom of showing this hard-up couple spending the entire weekend eating out or buying takeaway. Sandra’s depression also appears to be presented in a rather simplistic manner (she has turned a corner in the last scene; “I’ll start looking today. We put up a good fight”). Nevertheless, this is an engrossing picture and Cotillard richly deserved her Oscar nod. While the scenario may feel contrived, the moral realm it explores is both fascinating and affecting.


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