Saturday, February 21, 2015

Two Days and One Night

The Dardennes' brothers most recent film, Two Days and One Night (2014) has a narrative structure that is as profound, resonant, and classically beautiful as a Euclidean theorem:  a small manufacturing concern somewhere in Belgium is overstaffed -- the boss says that the employees will be paid a 1000 Euro bonus, but, only if, they agree to eliminate one position, the job held by a woman named Sandra who has recently returned to work after being disabled by mental illness, apparently, a bout of clinical depression.  Prior to film's first scene, 13 of the plant's 16 employees (Sandra is the 17th) have voted to accept the firm's bonus and, thereby, eliminate Sandra from the work force.  But the vote is suspect -- a foreman is alleged to made threats and exercised undue influence -- and so another vote, by secret ballot, has been scheduled for Monday.  Sandra has the weekend, the film's titular "two days," to meet with her co-workers and persuade them to vote to forego their bonuses and save her job.  Produced in a scrupulously ascetic, documentary style, the movie follows Sandra as she tracks down her co-workers and pleads with them to cast their vote in her favor.  The situation generates considerable suspense and provides the audience with a series of gripping vignettes, encounters between Sandra and her co-workers, most of whom try desperately (and realistically I think) to simply avoid her.  Each of these encounters has a different tone; some workers are defiant that they have earned their bonus and are not willing to part with it, notwithstanding Sandra's appeals -- indeed, a couple of Sandra's co-workers are so desperate for their bonus that punches are thrown; when one man says he will vote in Sandra's favor, his son, also employed at the company, knocks him out.  Other workers are ashamed of failing to support her and, sullenly, indicate that they will vote in favor of their bonuses but hope that she prevails.  Finally, a number of workers support her without hesitation and are willing to sacrifice not only their bonuses, but their standing in the company and their relationships with wives and husbands to do what they perceive to be the right thing.  Sandra is no pro-labor firebrand -- she's meek and does not want her co-workers to pity her and so she scrupulously avoids any overt or melodramatic appeal to their sympathy, something that mutes the film.  Her depression seems only tenuously controlled by the Zaanax that she gobbles and, at one point, she tries to commit suicide, swallowing a whole bottle of pills, only to learn that one of her co-worker's has unexpectedly decided to vote for her. (This necessitates a quick trip to the ER with an implausibly quick recovery -- she's out canvassing votes within a few hours of this misadventure.)  The movie is resolutely quotidian and understated:  there are no flowery speeches, at the climax, no one changes their vote from what they have promised, and, with only a couple exceptions, everyone is civil and polite.  The camera-work which seems mostly handheld is totally unobtrusive -- there are no pretty shots, no expressive framing of actors, nothing approaching symbolism or lyricism; the camera either shows Sandra talking to her co-workers or eating or preparing food for her two children.  The effect is superficially like Italian neo-realism with a significant difference -- the Italian neo-realists were, at heart, poets and there was a hidden Baroque soul to the events that they filmed; the Dardennes brothers are doggedly prosaic and, although the material has a Capra-esque tone, there is nothing uplifting or, even, particularly remarkable about what we are shown -- everything plays out more or less as you would expect without any surprises or real reversals of fortune.  (One scene in which a co-worker weeps with shame at recalling how he voted against Sandra and is pathetically happy that he has a chance to remedy the situation stands out for its emotional force -- the man seems to be an Arab or Indian and he is ethnically different from the other workers and, seemingly, more willing to display his feelings.)  The film is excellent but I have two significant reservations about it.  First, the heroine is played by a movie star, Marion Cotillard, and, although some care is taken to make her look shabby (she seems to wear the same clothes throughout the whole picture), the protagonist is, nonetheless, a beautiful woman with an implausible Hollywood figure -- tiny waist, long legs, and large bust.  Cotillard is a great actress and her performance is very effective but, nonetheless, she is manifestly a movie star inserted into a group of grubby plebeian Belgians.  Cotillard's movie star attributes make the scenes where men waver as to whether to vote for her while their wives bristle with anger particularly effective.  But anyone who is realistic and knows the ways of the world understands immediately that people who look like Ms. Cotillard are not the people laid-off when male managers downsize a business.  And this points to my second reservation about the film:  the situation, as beautiful and resonant as a fairy tale, is completely implausible.  In the United States, the notion of encouraging a group of workers to vote a woman with a protected disability out of a job would violate about a half-dozen laws at least and no one in their right mind would propose such a thing.  European labor laws are typically far more protective of worker's rights than in this country and, I presume, that the premise for this Brechtian fable is wholly fantasy, an adaptation of some kind of urban legend.  (The Dardennes brothers seem to grasp this problem to some extent -- the company where the heroine works is a start-up technology firm, a business that makes solar panels called Solwal.  Labor lawyers have told me that, in this country, the most offensive and egregious violations of labor law occur in Silicon Valley computer and tech companies -- that is businesses run by spoiled baby entrepreneurs who think that the rules don't apply to them.  I think the story invokes this sort of setting, although we see almost nothing of the managers of the firm.) 

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