Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne | Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night)

sleeping beauty
by Douglas Messerli

Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (writers and directors) Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) / 2014
The Dardennes’ new film, Two Days, One Night begins in daylight, yet in a dark room where the central character, Sandra Byas (Marion Cotillard) has retreated for a nap, from which, it appears—given the several unanswered telephone rings—she seems determined to remain “unawakened.” One might almost describe much of the movie as playing out this possibility; having gradually recovered from what apparently is a period of deep depression, Sandra often seems  determined to return to the cocoon of denial of life and family, which includes husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and two healthy and well-adjusted children. Life for Sandra and her family has clearly not been easy; their lives, Manu working in a local restaurant, and Sandra, working at a small plant producing solar panels, have entailed a great deal of struggle. The couple apparently has just recently been able to bring themselves up to a lower-middle-class level that provides, if nothing else, a comfortable, if slightly shabby, apartment, and the ability to provide for their children. If life is moderately tolerable, it is also apparent that it has cost the mental health, at least temporarily, of one of the family stalwarts.
     The unanswered phone call, from a close friend, is an attempt to report that Sandra’s fellow workers have just been asked to vote whether to allow her to return to work or to each receive a 1000 Euro bonus. Predictably, the vote has been overwhelmingly against Sandra; who wouldn’t choose a bonus, given the fact that many of her fellow-employees are in similar straits or even worse off? Yet, it is just that question—“who wouldn’t vote against Sandra?”— that the directors’, driven by their usual moral inquisitiveness, ask.

Evidently, the telephone caller, Juliette (Catherine Salée), did not make that choice, and her call is a plea for Sandra to immediately join her at the plant (on a late Friday afternoon) in order to argue before their employer, M. Dumont, that a second, fairer ballet, be scheduled for Monday morning. The shop foreman, Jean-Marc, has evidently convinced some of the workers that if they did not vote against Sandra that their own jobs would be in jeopardy; they catch Dumont at the last moment as he is about to leave for the weekend, and he agrees to allow a second vote.
      So, it is established, Sandra has a weekend, two days and one night, to meet with her co-workers and convince them to vote against their bonus allowing her to stay on the job. The absurd situation in which Sandra finds herself—truly a tortuously unfair position in which to put any human being—is clearly symbolic of the Belgian system’s (and, perhaps, any industrial system’s) inability to care for employees as individuals. The very depression brought on by the conditions in her life, has evidently sealed her fate: she is no longer necessary; the others have worked hard to keep up production in her absence and, clearly, deserve their promised bonuses.
     Faced with such insurmountable circumstances, who might blame Sandra for becoming ill by just thinking of the position in which her employer has put her? There is no way to perceive her task as anything but an attempt to beg for her survival from people who, like her, need and deserve the extra benefits of their hard work.
     Although she recognizes that she must, simply for the survival of her family, take on the task of meeting one by one with her fellow workers, in her still “unawakened” state she would far prefer to swallow her Xanax and retreat to bed. The Dardennes offer their heroine only one important advantage: her husband, Manu, is a loving, caring, and intelligent being who not only supports her but gently and insistently urges her on, helping her, along with her children, to catalogue the addresses she needs, arranging for the children to be cared for by their grandmother, and willingly taking time off to drive her to some of the meetings. Sandra is also given strong support by two friends, Juliette and another co-worker, a more shadowy, if important, figure.     So begins what, at first, appears to be a rather tedious and tense narrative structure, in which Sandra seeks out the others to plead for her job. Fortunately the directors are up to their task and invent all sorts of believable unexpected incidents along the way. Predictably, a couple of her co-workers and former friends refuse to even see her; others are sympathetic but insistent that they need the bonus in order survive, pay for their children’s schooling, or to improve their living conditions. Some grow violent, a son turning against his more  reasonable father and nearly killing him.     
     In one of the most remarkable encounters, a worker, Timur, upon encountering her in person, breaks into tears expressing his shame for having voted against her and revealing that he has a deeper sense of fair play and morality than even Sandra can herself imagine. Sandra’s encounter with one female employee ends in the woman leaving her husband, who demands she vote against her fellow employee; amazingly Sandra and Manu take in the now homeless woman for the night, and a real comradery develops between them that might never been established in the workplace. 
     In many of the encounters, the workers are not at home when Sandra visits them. She tracks them down in bars, working at “in the black” (off record) jobs, volunteering their time—situations that reveal to her and us the complexities of everyday living in contemporary French-speaking Belgium. And it is these “outings” which also help to present Sandra with a wider view of the society in which clearly she has felt as a kind of outsider. Indeed, we gradually begin to perceive, as she comes to recognize, nearly all her fellow-workers are undergoing some degree of deprivation and suffering. The society these encounters reveal is filled with hardy workers near the end of their tether. At several points, Sandra herself breaks down, unable to pursue what she comes to comprehend an unfair request, to put her welfare over their own. Yet some make that very choice; a substantial number of individuals are convinced to vote for her over their pocket books.
      But just as she seems about to succeed in this awful task, she once again falters. After quietly making up her children’s beds as might a loving mother on any ordinary day, she returns to the bathroom, to where she has retreated several times to down another pill; but this time she insistently removes not just one pill from the packet but all of them, releasing them from their packets before downing them en masse, seemingly determined to end her life. Her husband’s return with good news—another worker has called to say she will vote for Sandra—forces her to admit to her selfish act and she is rushed to the hospital.
      Even after this rash interruption, however, Sandra is forced to visit others, later in the evening, encountering a Black fellow worker who is willing to vote for her but fears that, as a part-time employee, it will mean the loss of his own job.      Gradually, Sandra recognizes that her seemingly meaningless journey has not really been a selfish action as much as it has been an attempt to fight a corrupt system, restoring order to a broken world. Although she desperately needs the money or her family may have to return to welfare, the truly important thing, she realizes, has been what she has learned on her symbolic “pilgrim’s progress,” a journey that has interwoven her life with those with whom she works. And we realize that the Dardennes’ film would become trite and somewhat meaningless if, at the end, it resulted merely in her winning back her job. One almost imagines that, although the narrative has been entirely focused on the issue of Sandra’s staying or going, the movie might as well have ended before we discover the final count. Yet, obviously, that would be to frustrate the narrative logic of the cinema itself.
      The Dardennes’ solve the problem by having the vote be evenly split. Accordingly, Sandra loses her job, yet the morality of the world in which she lives—at least half of it—is restored. Given a chance, people can make moral decisions as opposed to simply selfish ones. For her actions, indeed, Sandra is awarded by her employer an opportunity, after a short layoff, to return to her job. But the “award” means that the part-time employees will be fired; if there is anything that Sandra has learned in her voyage is that to accept those terms would be as immoral as the terms Dumont has set up for her own firing. She refuses, thus freeing herself, at least temporarily, from such a corrupt world. 
      At film’s end, even in her loss she has won back her self-respect, recognizing that she has been “cured” from the depressing and cynical vision that her world has previously imposed upon her. Calling Manu, she relays the facts, insisting she will begin looking for a new job the very next day. The renewed vigor in her voice says everything: Sandra is a transformed being, a sleeping beauty now awakened to the beauty and the nobility of the human race.

Los Angeles, January 21, 2015

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