Anyone who pays even scant attention to financial news — with its talk of GDP, consumer spending, upticks and downturns in various indices, jobs reports (generally either slightly better or slightly worse than expected) — would be forgiven for thinking of the economy as some kind of enormous, highly complex machine, one that explodes every couple decades and creates enormous misery, uncertainty, and (occasionally) happiness in the interim. This machine is serviced by an elite class of bankers, imbued with mystical powers. The machine has enormous power over every single individual’s life, yet not one completely understands it.
One forgets that the machine was designed by human beings, and it can be redesigned and replaced by human beings. Perhaps the reason one forgets is that the nature of the reality created by the machine forces one to consider her own individual livelihood before all else. You have to feed the machine before you can begin to question its nature or think about changing it. In a system like that, what can any one person do? Is there any such thing as a life lived with dignity in such a reality?
These are the questions Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been posing ever since their international breakthrough La Promesse some eighteen years ago (and probably earlier, too, though these earlier films are harder to come by). The Dardennes’ films typically focus on an individual — tenacious, working class, living on the outskirts of society — struggling to maintain her economic survival in the face of despair and moral compromise. These characters are constantly in motion (Igor on a motorbike in La Promesse, Rosetta walking at near-sprint in Rosetta, Cyril as the titular Kid with a Bike).
In Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes have created another such individual — played by Marion Cotillard in a highly controlled, yet immensely moving performance; her body brings to heartbreaking life the old idiom about carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders — and placed her in a scenario that perfectly captures the abjectness of our current moment of precarity, in which all jobs are temporary, all workers replaceable, and all lives subject to the conscienceless demands of capital. Sandra, recently recovered from a bout of deep depression, finds she has been laid off from her factory job by majority vote of the workers. The employees were presented a choice: keep Sandra or keep their bonuses. After confronting the manager in person — forcing him to see her face-to-face, as she will with so many others throughout this film — she convinces him to have a re-vote, arguing that the foreman may have swayed the votes. Sandra now has two days and one night to convince her fellow employees to sacrifice their bonuses (which, at 1000 Euros apiece, are substantial) in order to save her job.
This scenario could play as schematic, each encounter providing some easily digestible lesson, but the Dardennes never fall into that trap. Some are contrite for voting against her, others defensive, still more pragmatic, a few face a deep moral struggle, and one (the lowliest of the bunch) refuses to face Sandra at all, but each encounter has the buzzy unpredictability of real life. I found myself tensing up each and every time Sandra was forced to make another plea. Nearly all of them protest, and Sandra is quick to point out that this is not a decision she has forced them to make; it is the company who has set it up this way. But she can say little more than that. She rarely appeals to logic or even sympathy, but simply to a shared humanity. Each one must make his own choice. Each encounter saps Sandra of more and more of her lifeforce. The anger of the defensive is scarcely more tolerable than the pity of the sympathetic. When she comes home, Sandra can do little more than draw the curtains and escape into darkness.
And yet she persists. And this is what makes the Dardennes great artists, rather than mere social portraitists. Sandra, like all of the Dardennes’ protagonists, is not struggling against capitalism only, but against the cold oblivion of hopelessness. One thinks of Joan Robinson’s famous adage, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” The Dardennes extend this logic to the spiritual realm: the misery of being alive is nothing compared to the misery of giving it up.