Moments into my first encounter with Two Days, One Night (2014), I was reminded of a joke. A CEO, a Tea Party member, and a union worker are sitting at a table. A plate of twelve cookies appears. The CEO grabs eleven of them, looks at the Tea Partier, and exclaims, pointing to the worker, “Watch out—he wants your cookie!”
This joke was part of a Facebook meme that went viral in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Its resonance is not hard to grasp; the situation in the joke feels sadly and universally familiar in workplaces all over the world today. It is also at the heart of the plot of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film. Sixteen employees of a Belgian firm are given a choice between receiving their one-thousand-euro bonuses and keeping a fellow worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the protagonist, from being laid off. The group votes in favor of the bonuses, and Sandra spends the weekend tracking down several coworkers one by one, pleading with them to change their vote so she can keep her job. In a quiet irony, the firm is not a mammoth, Walmart-like corporation but a local small business that makes solar panels.
The Dardennes have said in interviews that the idea for the film occurred to them after they came across a book of case studies edited by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. One of the studies dealt with a worker edged out by management with the consent of all the other workers. Soon after, they discovered similar stories from all over Europe, and a pattern began to form: they realized that they were witnessing the death of worker solidarity.
Since the financial crisis, we have increasingly seen a critique of capitalism—even if often only a cautious one—in mainstream media and culture. But usually the underlying assumption in these discussions is that capitalism is a monolithic entity—one that has stood, intact and still, in the same form, for a couple of centuries. The history of economics tells us otherwise. There have in fact been many capitalisms over the years. For example, the Keynesian “controlled capitalism” that took hold in the years of the New Deal, to help relieve national economic suffering in the U.S. during the Great Depression, was quite different from the more rapacious, unregulated capitalism that had reigned a few decades earlier.
Since around 1980, we have been witnessing the rise of a new breed of capitalism, neoliberalism, which is achieving global domination with the unwavering agenda of reducing taxes on corporations and the rich, massively deregulating industries, slashing public spending on social programs, and “liberalizing” labor markets (code for giving companies free rein in their hiring and firing decisions). This model of capitalism, after steady escalation over three decades, has now become firmly entrenched in our lives, workplaces, and cultures. And it is on the social and economic repercussions arising from it that the Dardennes have been turning their camera. Their belief is clear: by creating new and indelible images of this virulent model, we can fight it, laying the ground from which a newer, more just social-economic form can grow.
However, the Dardennes are concerned not with abstractions of economic theory but with capturing what neoliberalism feels like on the ground—its emotional narratives, experiences, and after-effects. This preoccupation is not new: it can be traced back to the beginnings of their career in the 1970s, when they made small-scale, militant social documentaries and screened them in churches and public schools. La promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), the fiction films with which they hit their true artistic stride, put the brothers on a path of growing international fame and influence. They were followed, like clockwork, by a new film every three years, each one collecting critical praise. These films showed us that not all contemporary cinema is equally “contemporary.” Thousands of films are made around the world each year, but few of them truly take hold of important realities of our moment and reveal them to us in ways that resonate both universally and viscerally. Like all of their films of the past two decades, Two Days, One Night feels urgent and jolting because it holds a mirror up to life lived in our current global economic regime. And this time around, the picture they paint acquires a redoubled resonance in the ongoing aftermath of the financial crisis.
Despite the Dardennes’ enormous success in the art-cinema world—made clear by their unmatched record in taking home prizes from the Cannes Film Festival—they are drawn, much more than we might realize at first, to a cinema propelled by narrative incident and moment-to-moment excitement. As Dave Kehr has pointed out, “Though the Dardennes’ films are scrupulously naturalistic, they all belong to the suspense genre, though it is a suspense of character, not of plot. It is not so much a question of what will happen next as of how the characters arrive, or fail to arrive, at a decision to act.” The flash points of such action typically involve not a single person but an encounter between one person and another. Think, for example, of the act that gives La promesse its name. When the undocumented African immigrant Hamidou plummets from a scaffold and lies dying on the ground, he asks the teenage protagonist, Igor, to promise that he will take care of his wife and child. Igor gives his word, and all his actions from that point are inescapably marked by this pledge. Similarly, in their next film, when the title character of Rosetta betrays her only friend, Riquet, he chases her down to her trailer park home, forcing her to confront him.
The Dardennes have often invoked the influence on their work of the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose thought stresses the ethical and affective importance of the encounter—specifically, face-to-face—between one human being and another. It is important (and very moving) that, in Two Days, One Night, Sandra travels and seeks out her coworkers one by one, having a personal meeting with each. Indeed, in a telling instance that comments upon her quest, she misses a coworker at home and speaks to him through his wife’s cell phone instead; later, she runs into him by accident—the encounter now rendered complete. Each meeting and each worker is subtly, imaginatively individuated, and the film succeeds in great part because of this sustained inventiveness—and because of the miraculous performance of Cotillard, who embodies Sandra with unnerving conviction.
Now, if Two Days, One Night were merely illustrative of neoliberalism and its effects, it wouldn’t be very interesting. But the Dardennes have designed an aesthetically rich and original work packed with detail, so much of it open and suggestive but not conclusive. For example, Sandra has been marked for layoff on the eve of returning from sick leave due to struggles with depression. Can her depression itself be traced to her alienated factory labor, or did it preexist her work? If the Dardennes’ intention was to make a programmatic political tract—a project not inconsistent with an analysis of life under neoliberalism—they might have explicitly provided a connection between Sandra’s illness and her workplace. But they take great pains not to do so. Their choice makes sense, especially given the inspiration they draw from the work of Robert Bresson, who strenuously refused a cinema of transparent causality. And yet this link—between labor and alienation—is one that suggests itself so strongly that we find it hard to turn away from it. Such questions are signaled by the film in discreet, fleeting terms—and then left suspended.
In addition to the film’s headlong movement and suspenseful mood, there are other traits of commercial, narrative-based genre cinema that Two Days, One Night quietly hides in plain sight. Most obviously, it is a model of that familiar form, the “ticking-clock thriller.” But in a deeper and less obvious sense, the film’s connection to genre filmmaking becomes apparent when we view it as a melodrama. When Douglas Sirk was making his mid-1950s melodramas, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), they were frequently tagged (and dismissed) by critics of the period as “women’s pictures.” But in the early 1970s, scholars of melodrama reached back into film history and reclaimed these works, lavishing attention on their mise-en-scène—particularly, their rich use of decor, costume, and color. They argued compellingly that the powerful emotions in these stories are unlocked only partly through words; they also spill over into—and suffuse—the environments and objects of the mise-en-scène.
Color and costume in Two Days, One Night are put to use in the classic fashion of melodrama—and to similar, albeit subtler, emotional effect. The film opens with a close-up of bold colors: Sandra sleeping on a red pillow, in one of the brightly hued tank tops she will wear throughout the film (this one is teal). She awakes and walks into the kitchen, where the wall tiles rhyme with her pillow (they too are red—as is the tart she pulls out of the oven), and then into the bathroom (painted teal). In an iconic image of Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), on a park bench, taking a breather on a sweltering day and eating ice cream cones, she is wearing a pink tank top—the color and the piece of clothing, more than any other, that we will associate with her in this film. When, consumed by despair, she considers taking her own life, her last act before lying down on her bed is to draw the bedroom curtain. As she does, the Dardennes cut to a shot in which the curtain—composed of brilliantly colored vertical stripes—suddenly fills the frame. This image, which instantly flashed me back to the resplendent psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is my favorite in the film. According to the filmmakers, they very deliberately chose the colors that surround Sandra, wanting to counter, to oppose, her despair with a silent sense of hope.
Such expressive use of color is not new in the Dardennes’ filmography. The scholar Joseph Mai has coined an evocative term for their style: “sensuous realism.” In their images, according to Mai, camera movement, framing, and camera distance combine to create a heightened perception of colors and textures, resulting in a sensuous experience that pulls the viewer closer to the image and its contents, producing a “perceptual empathy.” The opening of Rosetta, for instance, plunges us into a documentary-realist world in which we follow the protagonist from behind, in close-up, soon after she has been laid off, as she tenaciously refuses to leave the business premises. But in counterpoint to their raw immediacy, the images are also carefully chromatically stylized. Following the stark white-on-red credits, the opening shots are visually ruled by the play of those two colors, the dual-color scheme, along with the swirl of textures, effectively collapsing contemplative distance between viewer and image—to completely captivating effect.
Both Rosetta and Two Days, One Night are about young women trying desperately to keep a foothold in a precarious working world. Early in the latter film, Manu, who is a fast-food worker employed by a chain called Lunch Garden—a perfectly generic and globalized name for this real-life Belgian corporation—encourages Sandra on her mission. “Tell them you want your job, you need your salary,” he advises. “You want to be with them, not out of work all on your own.” The Dardennes were asked in interviews if Sandra was simply an updated version of Rosetta, fifteen years later; they said no. Rosetta, for them, is “a good capitalist soldier”—they have long called Rosetta a “war film”—whose hunger for the opportunity to work is so powerful that she will even betray a friend to get and keep a job. But Sandra, to them, is different, in that a sense of solidarity is important to her. It’s ironic: conditions around the globe have deteriorated in many ways in the interval between the two films, and yet the new work—against all odds—ultimately feels more hopeful than the older one.
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and runs a community-oriented film blog at girishshambu.blogspot.com. He is the author of The New Cinephilia and is coeditor (with Adrian Martin) of the online cinema journal LOLA.