Two days of quiet desperation

Liam Mac Uaid reviews “Two Days, One Night”

“They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half.”

In late 1960 and early 1961 the Belgian working class took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, set up workers’ councils and fought running battles with the police in what had begun as protests against austerity. Their rulers feared that revolution was imminent. “Two Days, One Night” the new film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, which stars Marion Cotillard as factory worker Sandra, shows what happens when solidarity and collective action become hazy memories. In this film they are not even referred to.

In a perverse twist on workers’ control Sandra’s colleagues have been asked to vote on whether they should receive a bonus €1000, or forfeit the money and allow Sandra to keep her job. The procedure isn’t legal in Belgium, but the narrative is driven by this unreal premise as Sandra races against the clock to persuade her colleagues individually that they should support her. It’s done in a very low key way with none of the false sense of urgency that Hollywood would throw in with manipulative music or captions telling us it’s “Saturday, 3.25”.

The viewer struggles with some of her workmates’ responses, in particular “I’d love to help you, but we need the money for a new patio.” Here is the apotheosis of Thatcher’s vision of a nation of atomised home owners caring for nothing but their own family relocated to a dull looking Belgian town. Would people really shaft someone they work with for €1000, the price of a decent computer? A surprising number of Sandra’s colleagues do. Many of them are financially struggling having had a partner made unemployed or a child going to university. In their desperation they are willing to sacrifice her. If Ken Loach had been telling a similar story the situation would have been every bit as desperate and may even have lost her job, but some memory of the power of organisation or the ability to draw general conclusions from an individual dilemma would have been included.

Sandra and her colleagues are individuals. She regains her dignity through her short campaign to save her job but even that victory is a purely personal one. At no point in her many conversations with the people on whom her fate rests does anyone say “if they can do this to you they can do it to any of us”. We can only speculate as to whether this concept had crossed the film makers’ minds.

The widespread praise for Marion Cotillard’s performance is entirely justified. Her portrayal of a fragile vulnerable person struggling to cope with a catastrophe is incredibly subtle and, to the extent that the film asks us to draw a conclusion, it’s that she regains her strength through her refusal to submit to her situation. If we take the film as something of a meditation on the state of class consciousness in much of the world today, we might disagree with some of its conclusions but it is undeniably provocative and rewarding viewing.

1 Comment

  1. Yes we really thought it was a good film too and indicative of the state we are in. I would say that a number of workers do show solidarity so there is so hope shown there too. Analogous votes have taken place with workers constrained ot accept reduced hours, wages or pensions although this situation does appear a bit exceptional. The Dardenne brothers earlier films are well worth a look too – Rosetta (about a young woman desperate for work and prepared to go to any lengths) and the Kid and the bike (about a child in care’s relationship with a sympathetic woman). But as our French friend remarked to us after the film the brothers come form a Catholic progressive tradition rather than the Loach type of background which explains the focus on the individual and the absence of a trade union angle. I liked the way the relationship with the husband was supportive but pressurizing. The multi-cultural make up of the workforce and its typically small size was also accurate.

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