Brother, Can You Spare a Euro?

By posing the choice between a coworker’s job and 1,000 Euros, Two Days, One Night explores the state of worker solidarity.

Michael AtkinsonDecember 18, 2014

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has two days to talk nine of her 16 co-workers into sparing her job.

Even if you don’t think you’ve seen a film by Bel­gian broth­ers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dar­d­enne, you have, sort of. The astrin­gent and breath­less style they pio­neered in their 1996 break­out film, La Promesse—real­ist, hand­held, raw, off-kil­ter, always in motion, ready to explode — has been coopt­ed by indies from Bucharest to the Catskills. Even Amer­i­can TV shows (from The Wire on down) echo their work. The best of the copy­cats range from Cris­t­ian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, from 2007, to Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 heart­stop­per A Sep­a­ra­tion.

The movie is an iron maiden, making you wonder when this fierce but helpless woman will give way to the mortification of needing to beg her working-class colleagues to sacrifice for her sake.

It’s a style fit­ted per­fect­ly to the Dar­d­ennes’ sto­ries, which are always that of bru­tal­ly sim­ple dilem­mas brought about by socioe­co­nom­ic cri­sis. Their best films, Roset­ta (1999), The Son (2002) and L’Enfant (2005), all piv­ot on the des­per­a­tion of bot­tom-classers lost in the neolib­er­al­is­tic now.

That their sen­si­bil­i­ty has become the glob­al stan­dard for seri­ous, social­ly con­scious film­mak­ing hard­ly dims the fire in the bel­ly of their new film, Two Days, One Night. At its cen­ter is Mar­i­on Cotil­lard, intense­ly inhab­it­ing a besieged work­ing-class Every­girl who occu­pies a vor­tex of stress the Dar­d­ennes have down to a science.

She’s San­dra, a young Bel­gian wife and mom, wok­en from a deep day­time sleep by a bad phone call. Slow­ly, we gath­er a few things. One, she’s crushed by depres­sion, pop­ping Xanax and some­times bare­ly able to stand. Two, she’s been on med­ical leave from her solar-pan­el fac­to­ry because of her break­down — and her co-work­ers have worked over­time in her absence, essen­tial­ly mak­ing her job redun­dant. Odd­ly (or per­haps just to us), the fac­to­ry has let the work­ers vote to either have San­dra back or each get 1,000 Euro bonuses.

They vot­ed her out. Ral­ly­ing with friends and her tire­less hus­band (Fab­rizio Ron­gione), San­dra con­fronts a super­vi­sor and gets him to agree to a sec­ond vote that com­ing Mon­day — giv­ing the frail, wilt­ing woman two days to pur­sue her 16 co-work­ers at their homes and beg for her job back.

The entire film is her strug­gle to defy her inner des­o­la­tion and per­form this humil­i­at­ing and Sisyphean task, and of course the Dar­d­ennes pop­u­late her voy­age with an unpre­dictable but nev­er con­trived vari­ety of respons­es from her co-work­ers. A com­mon reply is no.” They need the bonus­es for their own fam­i­lies. But oth­ers waver, in a semi-social­ized labor milieu that may seem odd to those Amer­i­cans for whom vot­ing against your own bonus for the sake of some­one else’s job would be a non-starter. Some waf­fle, torn by union-style ethics. One bursts into tears from guilt over hav­ing vot­ed San­dra out. Anoth­er co-work­er is bul­lied by her hus­band into vot­ing for the mon­ey — until she leaves him and joins San­dra on her road trip.

The film’s mer­ci­less struc­tur­al rig­or makes Cotil­lard the whole show, and she puts your heart in your throat. San­dra man­ages to stick her chin out some of the time, but you know that under­neath she’s like a shat­tered win­dow — a stiff breeze away from col­laps­ing. The movie is an iron maid­en, mak­ing you won­der when this fierce but help­less woman will give way to the mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of need­ing to beg her work­ing-class col­leagues to sac­ri­fice for her sake — and the specter of how hor­ri­fy­ing life at work will be if she succeeds.

When she does sur­ren­der and con­front the abyss, in a word­less scene with the Xanax that stops the clocks, Cotillard’s epi­cal­ly woe­ful eyes and con­gen­i­tal sense of vic­tim­hood make the movie pulse. San­dra runs the rings of Hell, but it’s almost all inter­nal. Work­ing as always in their home turf of Seraing, the Dar­d­ennes are peer­less at pit­ting human frailty against the inhu­man pres­sures of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, and it’s the eco­nom­ic speci­fici­ty of their sto­ries that makes them uni­ver­sal. You get the vivid sense in Two Days, One Night that not only are decent fac­to­ry jobs in Wal­lo­nia as pre­cious as pearls, but also that work­place sol­i­dar­i­ty is a far more pow­er­ful, and there­fore vex­ing, quan­ti­ty in West­ern Europe than it is in the States.

After all, what the film’s char­ac­ters endure is a micro-ver­sion of the moral com­bat every cul­ture must wage between the hungers of cor­po­rate indus­try and the ide­al­is­tic sol­i­dar­i­ty of union­iza­tion. And through them you see why unions are fad­ing, in graph­ic domes­tic detail.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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