From neo-realism to neo-liberalism: “Two Days, One Night”

The word “depression” indicates a downturn, and can refer to psychological or economic dimensions. In the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard poignantly portrays Sandra, a Belgian proletarian who is fighting both. After recovering from an illness, Sandra returns to her workplace, a small plant manufacturing solar panels. However, her absence suggests to the firm’s cost-cutting owners and management that they can maximize profit by reducing the workforce, and give the employees a soul-wrenching choice: They can vote to retain Sandra or to eliminate her job and each receive a bonus.

Sandra is faced with this conundrum, and as the film title signals, she has a short time to lobby her colleagues to reverse their earlier decision in favor of terminating her. Unemployment, of course, would have a devastating effect on the family of this young mother and wife, so she frantically sets out to sway her co-workers to support her during an upcoming revote and save her job.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night is Belgium’s Official Submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards and winner of or nominee for 52 awards. Cotillard, who previously struck Oscar gold as chanteuse Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose – one of the rare times a foreign actor has scored a Best Acting Academy Award in a non-English speaking role – is being widely touted for another Oscar nom. (We’ll find out Jan. 15 when the Academy announces its nominations.)

Two Days, One Night is made in a neo-realist style, which betrays the Dardennes’ documentary background (unlike most movies, it was shot in chronological order). Further enhancing its dramatic impact is that their film is also a microcosm of and parable about the state of the working class and the workers’ movement in the contemporary West. As the desperate Sandra tries to rally her comrades against their bosses’ ploy, the theme of solidarity is explored against the subtext and backdrop of a ultra-competitive, cutthroat capitalism, where it’s every man and woman for themselves. Our age of downsizing and outsourcing has wreaked havoc upon the proletariat, concurrent with the shrinking of unionization and of socialist, pro-worker parties, policies and politics.

In this context it’s not remarkable that people will sell out. What is astonishing is how little they will betray each other for, such as the pittance the bosses offer their workers at Sandra’s expense – scraps from the capitalists’ table, which some of her salivating associates are eager to chomp into in our not-so-brave dog-eat-dog world. At least Sandra’s husband Manu (Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione) and children remain steadfast.

In lots of Hollywood mass-entertainment spectacles about zombies, vampires, alien invasion and superheroes, mindless violence and action fill the screen. But there’s more drama and reality in the central storyline of Two Days, One Night: Will Sandra be able to keep her job? Like Antonio in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic The Bicycle Thief, the importance of employment for ordinary people is at the heart of the drama.

What may be this film’s most profound insight is how the attitudes of Sandra’s co-workers and how they treat her affect her mood, temperament and self-esteem. It subtly reveals what could be called a psychology of solidarity – or what happens in its absence. The Dardennes show how the simple act of sticking together – or not – impacts human consciousness (and unconsciousness).

Cotillard is one of those rare actresses who is as much at home in foreign films and indies as she is in Tinseltown blockbusters. American popcorn munchers will recognize Cotillard from her appearances on the big screen at multiplexes in crowd-pleasers such as Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, The Dark Knight Rises, as well as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Look for her later this year as Lady Macbeth in a film version of the Bard’s “Scottish play.” Cotillard delivers a tour de force performance as Sandra. It ranks among her best roles, as Edith Piaf and Stephanie, the disabled whale trainer who rediscovers sex in the harrowing Rust and Bone.

According to press notes, the Dardennes are “[k]nown for their starkly realistic approach to working-class themes and characters with a heavy dose of social consciousness.” In terms of recent cinema, these co-auteurs are Continental counterparts to Britain’s Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. With Two Days, One Night and its stellar lead actor, these co-writers/co-directors have captured a moment in time when the beleaguered proletariat is in retreat, and in dire need of workers of the world uniting.

The made-in-Belgium, subtitled, Oscar-worthy film is now in nationwide release.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.