Friday, February 13, 2015

174. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s francophone film “Two Days, One Night” (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014): Ethics and self-interest in a job-insecure world

The Dardenne brothers’ work Two Days, One Night is typical of a movie that makes you think beyond its apparent light-hearted positive ending that closes a tense and bleak scenario of sudden impending unemployment. It is a film that makes the viewer ponder if a positive ending is indeed so beyond what the film’s official ending suggests for the viewer’s benefit. More importantly, the film presents a grim situation that could be universal in democratic environs.

The facts are stacked against the film’s protagonist Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in Two Days, One Night. Sandra, a factory worker, has been hospitalized for depression and has now been discharged to resume work. While she is on leave getting treated, her employer who runs a solar panel manufacturing plant, realizes that his company needs to tweak its workforce to stay profitable and a sick employee like Sandra is not helping matters. One way out for the employer would be lay-off Sandra and ask the other employers to work more hours and compensate them with an attractive bonus for their additional sweat. The small company could then stay afloat and make profits and share some of it with the employees.

Now the Dardenne brothers, who write their own original scripts, when presenting the tale of a mentally fragile lady worker in Two Days, One Night, are also presenting the fragile Belgian economy (or for that matter, the world’s). That’s the charm of the directors who are in their sixties and perceptible of changes in their own neighbourhood. What you see is a lot more than what you think you are viewing. The film is more than the depiction of 2 critical days and 1 night in Sandra’s life. The larger perspective the film offers is the dilemma of Belgian industries that have to trim their costs to remain competitive in a global economy. And in a democracy, it ought to “appear” that the workers are increasingly a part of the decision-making process. And the decision the workers make is to bring in more money for their own stretched monetary household budgets by working more hours. That decision results in the employer giving the pink slip to the worker Sandra recently hospitalized for depression. Thus 16 families stand to gain from the promised bonus; the employer presumably spends less on the gross salary outgo for his healthy 16 employees; and his factory remains financially viable. Only the 17th family, the family of Sandra with her caring husband and two school-going kids are to face a financial tsunami, with Sandra unemployed. The ethical question is whether a sick employee, vulnerable on several fronts, physical, financial, and isolated by her guilty co-workers, can be shown the door.  At the same time a sick employee reduces the profits of the company, which in turn cannot be expected pay bonuses to its healthy workers due to decreasing profits.

The Dardenne brothers seem to be attracted to the subject of unemployment and its ripple effect on society, both social and psychological.  An early Dardenne brothers’ work Rosetta (1999), which also dealt with unemployment, not merely won the director-scriptwriter duo the coveted Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival but the film had the honour of being associated by the Belgian Government to a bill already in Parliament which ultimately became the Rosetta law (after the movie’s name), a labour law protecting young workers similar to the movie’s protagonist Rosetta. Two Days, One Night, is yet another delectable film that looks at unemployment in Belgium or rather the fear of unemployment for employed workers universally.

Absence of solidarity: A scene that captures it all--the sadness, the guilt,
the empathy, and the self interest

While the script and direction of the Dardenne brothers lead the viewer to gently slip into the viewpoint of Sandra (so often in the film the camera is either behind Ms Cotillard or facing her) so that we are led to empathize with Sandra, a sick lady who is almost forced to beg her 16 work compatriots to forgo the bonus that has been assured, which understandably would make a big difference in their quality of lives with Sandra’s exit and their extra hours of labour at the plant. While the viewer is cajoled to see 16 different views to the options before the workers, ethical issues are cleverly reversed on the victim. Sandra is forced to see a dozen or so viewpoints of her co-workers about the choice she would have make if she were in their shoes.  The overall brilliance of the film again rests with the scriptwriting-director duo who are able to bring on the table differing reactions. One reaction is of fear of losing his/her job if Sandra is retained in the plant. Another interesting reaction is the nagging emergence of guilty conscience of voting against Sandra when she had hid a co-worker’s mistake to help him retain his job and covered it up by saying she was responsible instead for the mistake.  Yet another reaction comes from another co-worker who wants to flee a spouse who forces her to make decisions as he wants them made. Subtleties of the Dardenne brothers’ cinema are many: parents don’t want their children to hear as the adults make their unethical decisions, employers like to pass on the brunt of their unethical decisions on the most vulnerable of their workforce at each given time.

The Dardenne brothers have stated that they always wanted to make this film but the global economic upheaval that began in 2008 spurred them on. According to their interview given to Larry Rohter in the New York Times, the seed of movie germinated when they read a sociological book called The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society edited by Pierre Bourdieu. Apparently one case study in that book dealt with a non-productive worker. The idea of the managers influencing the workers to push such a worker aside with the carrot of bonuses for the productive workers in Two Days, One Night comes from that case study. To have built the complex tale of Two Days, One Night from a sociological case study is a creditable feat, especially when the viewer is privy to the interesting twist the employer provides Sandra in confidence towards the end of the film. It reverses Sandra’s position so dramatically.

The vulnerable and the more vulnerable worker

The importance of Two Days, One Night lies in two distinct departments of the movie: the scriptwriting and the acting. The scriptwriting reveals the importance the brothers give to psychology of the personalities in the film. The honest conversations are always in the open space. The unethical conversations are in closed environments, with no witnesses. The Dardenne brothers allows for the discussion on the lack of sex between Sandra and her husband to be discussed in the open areas but in stark contrast Sandra’s employer makes his final deal with Sandra in closed space.  In the final moments of the film, there is an awkward optimism. But is it real? We always tend to believe the employer is a villain but in the evolving management scenario the co-worker can be an equal villain--all for self-interest and self-preservation.

The best and most effective role of the script is pushing the viewer to make choice at each stage of the film as what he or she would do in that particular situation when Sandra meets up with each of her 16 co-workers rather than the viewer making value judgements on each character. That is what makes this film remarkable.

A sleepless night spent to seek support from co-workers

It appears that Ms Cotillard was approached by the Dardenne brothers for this role while they were producers of Ms Cotillard’s earlier work Rust and Bone and she agreed. Her work in Two Days, One Night is amazing as she is deglamorized and has to combine mental fragility and resilience. The complex emotions required of her are truly phenomenal. She richly deserved her Oscar nomination for this demanding role.

The effect of unemployment on caring spouses

The Dardenne brothers ought to have been recognized for their admirable script. The film may be bleak, but it throws up important and relevant questions applicable to all of us. It is good to have directors like the Dardenne brothers making such rich thought-provoking cinema offering catharsis for the viewer just as the Greek playwrights of the distant past.

P.S. The film won the best film award at the Sydney film festival. The film is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014. Marion Cotillard, nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film, did not win the award. The Dardenne brothers are also on the author's list of 15 favourite active filmmakers