Workers on the Brink
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest examination of working class Belgian life under the life-sucking beast of Darwinian Capitalism is a minimalist parable with maximum effect. Two Days, One Night (2014) follows the harrowing plight of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she tries to save her job working in a factory that builds solar panels. Sandra is a young Belgian mother who recently returned to work from an illness. She learns that her coworkers have been forced by the boss of the company to make a choice – receive their annual bonus of 1,000 Euros ($1,200) and lay-off Sandra, or forfeit their bonus and let Sandra keep her job. Sandra has one weekend (two days and one night) to visit her fellow workers and convince them to give up their bonuses and vote in her favor on Monday morning.
The Dardennes never once leave Sandra. This is her movie, and we are right by her side in her plight for the entire 95 minutes of the film. As she desperately makes phone calls and visits peoples’ homes to plea her case, the camera follows her every move. The film is scored by the clomping of her boots as she treks and trudges through the streets and countryside of Belgium. Never once does the camera pull away to an outside perspective. Sandra is in every single scene, so we absorb her experience by being completely immersed in it. Because of this, webecome Sandra, and she becomes us. She is an “everywoman” of our time.
We are with her as she stands in front of each door ringing the bell to ask for help. We feel her hesitation, the tension, the despair, the pressure, the degradation. The doors themselves become stories or portraits of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are great at subtle details, and each door is etched with details of class. Some are decorated with iron gratings with bows soldered onto them. These serve as signifiers of trying reach beyond the trappings of the lower class. They are badges of the working class, emblems of what the people have worked hard to earn. They are the material of the thousand Euros that will cause Sandra to lose her job.
Sandra desperately fears losing her class position and her townhouse and having to return to public housing. The doors of the homes she visits, their manicured yards, their frosted glass windowpanes, and their tidy porches are testaments to the workers’ hard work to rise above the economic trap of public housing. However, not all workers can throw away their thousand Euros on new doors. Some live in apartment buildings with ragged doorbells in rows, their names blurred and scrawled to near anonymity. Even among the workers at the factory, there is class differentiation as evidenced by the bells Sandra rings, the doors she knocks on, and the activities of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are so good at showing class through details.
Sandra visits the workers on the weekend, during their time off from work, and we get a glimpse of their private lives. They do the kinds of things regular working people do. They work on cars, or do laundry at the launderette. One man cuts tiles for a second job. One woman is redecorating a bedroom. A father coaches his son’s football team. All these people are ordinary working people doing ordinary things. They have the things that are important to them – their jobs, their homes, their families, their things. And these everyday details make us realize how vulnerable Sandra is on the brink of losing hers.
Sandra really is on the brink. We learn early on that she has been absent from work due to an illness and is just now returning. In her absence, the factory discovered that they could accomplish the same amount of work with one less person. If sixteen workers can perform the work of seventeen, why hire Sandra back? So the company forces the employees to vote against her and for themselves.
Sandra is popping pills from the beginning of the film, and at first we don’t know what they are. Eventually we learn that her illness was actually depression. The Dardennes are clever. Clearly depression can be read two ways in this film – emotional depression and economic depression. The film paints a picture of what happens emotionally when people are forced to resort to extreme measures to maintain stability during an economic depression. Sandra is diagnosed with both literal and economic depression, and perhaps the Dardennes are saying that the latter feeds the former. Certainly the rise of antidepressants and antianxiety medication occurred with the shift to global capitalism and the outsourcing of jobs and increasing pressures on the worker.
While the camera follows Sandra on her plight, it also follows her as she swallows handfuls of Xanax to try to cope. She chugs them down with bottled water as she heaves her tired body up roads to visit more houses and plea with more workers to vote for her job and not their bonus. We are right by her side when Sandra shakes her fellow workers’ hands, watches them cry or express outrage or guilt at her request. We turn with her as she turns her back on a woman who says she won’t help her yet offers Sandra a cup of orange juice. We fall on the ground with her when two workers go to fist-to-cuffs over her case and she gets hit in the face. We occupy Sandra on her plight, and we cry with relief when someone says he or she will vote in her favor. We feel the outrage and despair when one of her factory friends refuses to even answer the bell though Sandra knows she is inside and the woman is supposedly Sandra’s friend.
We are literally inside Sandra’s shoes, which the Dardennes emphasize by continually focusing on Sandra’s feet in motion. Except when she is standing still frozen with hopelessness or lying in bed staring blankly in despair. Then we are looking out of her eyes into the futureless future she sees – the loss of her working class position and return to public housing which she sees as an ultimate failure. She cries that she is invisible. In this economy, workers are invisible and disposable. They are pitted against each other for survival, and they are thrown in a pit like so many cocks tearing each others’ throats out for a bigger pay check. This is a movie that tests human spirit in a time when it has been beaten down to the ground.
The workers all respond differently. Some say they need the money to pay heating bills, clearly barely making ends meet and needing the bonus for basic living necessities. Others say they need it to buy school clothes for their children or pay for home repairs, so they refuse to vote in Sandra’s favor. Then there are the ones who are outraged at her visit and plea. They say the bonus is what they have coming to them, and they curse Sandra for trying to steal their piece of the pie. Others cry that it’s “not fair” to be put in such a position, and certainly it is not fair. That is the bottom line. None of this is fair. This economy isn’t fair. No one – the workers or Sandra – should be in this position. It is not Sandra’s choice. It is not the workers’ choice. They are thrust into the arena like Romans thrown to the tigers, or tributes offered at the Hunger Gamesor citizens drawing pieces of paper to decide who will be stoned in the coal town in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery (1948).
Except this isn’t 1948. This is 2015, and as usual the Dardennes give us plenty of reminders that we are in the world of 21st century global capitalism. The constantly ringing mobile phones (an ever present character in their films) remind us that this is the world of money on the move. Fast moving traffic clogs the roads with Japanese and Korean made cars. Traffic is always the main soundtrack in a Dardennes film, and in fact it is the sound that closes this and many of their other films as the screen dissolves to black. Frequently the very last sounds we hear in a Dardennes film, including this one, is traffic.
The sound of cars on the move situates us in the real environment of working class Belgium, but it also reminds us that we are inside the world of money trafficking and the people caught up in it. Sandra needs her job. Every single person she visits needs his or her job. They all need money because money is what makes things move. People can buy things, move through the class system, and move from public housing to townhouses. But this movement is also an illusion. Mostly the working class can be thrown into the dog-eat-dog, people-eat-people landscape of Darwinian Capitalism, a ferocious worldwide empire of money where workers are led to believe that it’s okay to chew their friends’ leg off for their own survival.
This movie shows a desperate and suffocating state of economics for the everyday people trying to get by. Marion Cotillard plays all the complexities of this pressure to the hilt. At moments she is on the brink of suicide. At others she makes her kids’ beds in an attempt to create order and stability in an economic world that makes no sense. At times she takes a deep breath and marches staunchly to the next house to plead for their vote. In a flash, she’s back home climbing into bed with a mouthful of pills and eyes full of blank resignation. Her eyes stare shell-shocked out of her taut and exhausted face. She is caught between the refusal to give in and the desire to succumb to desperate hopelessness, between fighting for her survival and giving up. The place she occupies is the place so many people occupy today.
Sandra is the one knocking on the doors, but the people answering are equally desperate. They just happen to have their jobs . . . for now. In the meanwhile, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) works as a cook in a restaurant, and he dedicatedly sticks to Sandra’s side. He does not give up and does not let her give up. In a small moment when they turn up the car radio and exchange a smile in the car, the small tear-streaked smile that cracks out of Sandra’s worn and exhausted face is enough to break our hearts. There is some life left. In fact, as much as the economic system wants to beat these people down, the human spirit does reign.
I couldn’t help but note the irony of the job Sandra is trying to save. She works in a solar factory, a place that harnesses sunlight while its business practices have trapped her and the other workers in darkness. Also, this is supposed to be an alternative energy source, yet the only alternative energy source we see is one of labor exploitation. The alternative we see is economic practices that have fractured solidarity amongst workers and demand workers cut each other’s throats or risk losing their job and their pay check.
It is not all darkness, and in many ways this is the “lightest” of the Dardennes’ films, though still a brutal portrayal of 21st century capitalism. Some people do come through for Sandra. Most notably, Sandra confronts one woman who lives with her wealthy asshole abusive husband in a posh house in the countryside. He tells his wife not forfeit her bonus for Sandra because they need a new patio, as if a patio were more important than a human life. But the woman changes her mind. She leaves the husband and joins Sandra on her plight. The Dardennes never use soundtrack music. All music is diegetic and comes from within the narrative of the film. In a scene of moving solidarity and triumph of the human spirit, Sandra, her husband and their new comrade crank up the volume to “Gloria” on the car radio and sing along smiling at each other.
Here she comes
Walkin’ down the street
Here she comes
Comin’ through my door
Here she comes
Crawlin’ up my stair
And here comes Sandra. She visits one house, and a young black girl takes her to meet her father who is doing laundry at the local launderette. From the state of his home with the peeling paint and beat-up door, he clearly is in economic hardship. He says that he knows voting in Sandra’s favor is the right thing to do even though he fears repercussions from his co-workers and is scared he will lose his job because he is a temporary contract worker. However, when Monday comes, he does vote for her.
I’m not going to give the ending away and spoil the film, but I will say that in the end it is not about whether Sandra keeps her job or the other employees get their bonuses. It is about the triumph of the human spirit even in the dehumanizing system of Darwinian Capitalism. It is about trying to grab that moment outside of economic pressure and simply do the right thing. The economic system isn’t going change anytime in the near future, but the human spirit has the potential to prevail and can be bigger and better than money.
Of further interest:
Read Kim Nicolini’s reviews of two other Dardenne brothers movies:
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.