If a pair of writer/directors exists that can rival Joel and Ethan Coen for a body of work with profound depictions of humanity, it is another set of brothers. The films of the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have consistently been among the best of modern offerings and were a main feature in an essay I wrote on European film for Image a few years back (“Portraits of the Sonata: Desire and Transformation in Modern European Cinema,” No. 61, Spring 2009).
La Promesse, L’Enfant, and especially Le Fils, match any expectations one could have with regard to artistic portrayals of humanity’s struggle for decency and dignity, and one of the Dardennes’ latest works, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) proves that their touch has not waned in the thirty-odd years they’ve written and directed for the screen.
The film features the magnificent Marion Cotillard. In an Oscar-nominated performance, she plays Sandra, a Belgian mother of two children who has just learned that while she was absent, her employer offered her co-workers a choice: they could either have a one thousand euro bonus, or Sandra could keep her job.
Sandra has suffered intensely from a debilitating case of depression, which is intimated as the underlying reason that her supervisor wants her gone. He also told a set of lies to sway the vote. She gets the news on a Friday, and with the help of a friend is able to convince the boss to hold another vote on Monday, free of the supervisor’s undue influence.
What follows is a journey through those two days and one night, a process by which the protagonist lobbies her co-workers to surrender their bonus so that she can keep her job. The plot line is simple, but that is part of the Dardenne brothers’ genius: they know that miles of depth can be plumbed beneath a relatively short space. Complexity is more a matter of excavation, not necessarily traversal. And delving into the density of Sandra’s dilemma involves a depiction of what she has at stake pitted against all that would defeat her—not just her circumstances, but her own psyche as well.
Luckily, Sandra is not alone, but part of her problem is that she cannot acknowledge that fact. Her husband, Manu, provides a constant source of encouragement for her, as do a set of loyal friends. However, the vastness of her despair resists the fortitude they offer. In this, the Dardennes touch upon a great truth about the enemies we face—not just those clinically disposed to their vulnerability—but all who labor against formidable foes.
For it is easier—much, much easier—simply to collapse rather than to fight. When faced with the daunting, it is practically a struggle against science, a battle against the rules of nature, to bow our backs and lift up our chins. It seems as foolish as it does fruitless, and those who push us on and pull us up, who towel us down, cauterize our cuts, and pour water down our throats, perversely become objects of resentment. They torture us with their encouragement.
“It’s easy for you to say,” we throw back at them. “It’s not you who has to do this.”
Sandra barks those words at Manu even though he is beside her every step of the way. He too has a great deal at stake: if Sandra fails, they could lose their house and be forced onto government assistance and into state housing. Manu’s job at a diner simply can’t sustain them. But when he won’t let her submit to the circumstances, she ever so slightly begins to push him away. As he tries to keep her from taking too many Xanax, upon which she relies to contain her nerves and control her crying jags, she swallows the pills down with a fury.
Another layer of complexity is added by the natural repulsion that one feels about the situation. It is hard for Sandra not to see herself both as a beggar and a thief. Dignity in such a circumstance is difficult to come by, though as she makes each of her co-workers admit, she did not force this choice upon them. Still, she is well aware that she is asking them to give up something that they’ve been provided—a bonus, a gift—and to do so puts her in the position of stealing their happiness.
Worse yet, many of the workers need the bonus desperately. They too are on hard times. Among their number are the callous and the heartless: that’s always the case. But most of her colleagues are troubled deeply about the devilish choice they must make. “Put yourself in my shoes,” they implore her, pointing to debts and expenses and problems. “Put yourself in mine,” is Sandra’s answer.
What is best about the film is the portrayal of the herculean toil that goes into the living of everyday people. These are lower-middle-class workers, and yet their story is as deep as any Greek tragedy, and their triumphs as large as any Greek epic’s. Sandra rivals any heroine of antiquity, and she does so in the working environs of suburbia, among the graceless and pedestrian and commonplace.
Etched upon Sandra’s face is the strain of her species, and born in her smile is its honor. She runs the race we all run, and fights the fight we all fight. It is a wondrous and marvelous thing to behold, whether she wins in the end or not.
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.