Cannes 2014: ‘Two Days, One Night’ a standard but grandly thoughtful Dardennes tale

Two Days One Night Marion Cotillard

Two Days One Night posterTwo Days, One Night

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Belgium/Italy/France, 2014

The Dardenne brothers have always been proponents of a reserved, human-driven sense of moral philosophy. Their films are broadly humanistic, always about working-class folk who drive against the blue-collar hero routine. Raw despondency leaks through the generally positive aspects of humanity involved with their characters, often asked to sacrifice a large part of their life to live up to “doing the right thing.” They’re political in the sense that they’re about issues typically involving poor protagonists, but subvert visual alliance to any political body or agenda. The economics tied to their choice of characters drives home the level of sacrifice required for humans to help other humans as well as place the uncommon lives of common people onto the big screen. With Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes posit a new thought experiment, used to gauge how humanity can react in the face of injustice and the complex moral systems that dominate how we behave.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is already worried about her job stability, hoping that her salary is enough to keep her new house afloat after a life in social housing. She’s reliant on medication, but has been seemingly improving to a routine with the support of husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione). Then comes the news: Sandra’s colleagues have been faced with an ultimatum of either keeping her on board or receiving their annual bonus — and have chosen their bonus. Sandra has made a deal with her employer to have another ballot on Monday, and plans to use the weekend to convince her fellow employees to choose her over their money.

This set-up could easily be plagued with a trivial moralizing tale — the usual about the inerrant moral perspective of those not blinded by fortune. However, the Dardennes have evolved a consistent understanding of the faults of such a simplistic route for humanization. Sandra has a perfect perspective of what it’s like to ask her co-workers to effectively pay her a significant part of their earnings for her to stay on board. It’s not a simple question of basic sacrifice — many of the workers are completely dependent on their bonus to continue subsisting: their denial is not selfish, but a matter of survival. Sandra knows she will be seen as a beggar from other beggars, none of whom were happy to vote against her in the first place. To see her asking them to change their decision with her body and her tears in person remarks a working-class update to the oft-quoted thought experiment of the trolley problem. To see their effect on Sandra causes some to reconsider their ballot; others simply put themselves in the position to make that sacrifice.

Two Days One Night Marion Cotillard

The Dardennes’ films are presented without a sense of objective blame or rousing finger-pointing, rather to present a nuanced view of humanity and how moral systems behave. Even the corporate entity of the employer, easily relegated to an antagonist role in a lesser film, is largely blameless, not having made its intended quota and seeking a (admittedly stupefying) workaround to help their employees pay the bills. Near the end of the film, there is an addendum to the moral issue that’s akin to slightly altering the trolley problem to gauge how we engage with moral choices: if there’s any kind of message present throughout Sandra’s struggle, it’s inherent in her own act of autonomy here thanks to the episodic build-up from the rest of the feature.

Despite their cleverness and obvious care for who these characters may come to represent, the film is shot and composed on a level of realistic filmmaking that serves to document in cinéma vérité rather than accentuate or serve performances. It’s by-the-books Dardennes: not exactly a complaint or genuine criticism, but does place the film in the context of their earlier, stronger work to the extent that the episodes of moral battles begin to wear thin as they progress. As a tale of light, cautious thinking, however, it still stings strong:  everybody in Two Days, oNE nIGHT is selfish to an extent (most importantly Sandra), and everyone is aware of what “the right thing to do” may be. Nobody is perfect, not everyone is moral, and what may be seen as moral is a complex, dramatic beast.  It’s the Dardennes’ honesty that will humanize the working class more than any “issue” film may achieve.

— Zach Lewis

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