Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Catherine Salée, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Christelle Cornil
Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Runtime: 98 min.
Verdict: More interesting when the economic situation provides for the backdrop to the family dynamic.
Now, here’s the deal – because of the stage I’m in my career at the moment, where the office and the home are for the first time in my life are past having a dialog with each other and are now fiercely quarrelling, Two Days, One Night, is too close for comfort. Watching Sandra’s (Ms. Cotillard) slender body wade through those two days, across alleys, staircases, sidewalks, with the feet falling sideways, with her bent back and her tummy sucked in (the walk so closely resembles that of Maria Sharapova) as if there is the strongest wind that needs to be negotiated, achieves the effect of a class one synecdoche. Hers is a body in subordination, a site that is directly and apparently the space on which the film’s central drama/dynamic hinges upon and as much as the request is for her job, there is an implicit plea for her space too.
But then, is she? I mean, is her body the site? Or is the site, the string that exists between her body and the table on which the kids and her husband eat the pizza or the bench where she and her husband Manu (Mr. Rongione) eat their ice-creams? Isn’t she much like Susy like Wait Until Dark (a home-invasion picture), whose personal space has been invaded by the very capitalist entity from which we’ve been brought up all our lives to separate our personal spaces from (the myth of work-life balance and all that), and whose husband is almost hell-bent to empower her. Trust me, I do not want to sound cynical but maybe empowering, much like money or sex, is actually an act of regaining one’s purpose in the beneficiary’s life and hence reclaiming that ego/identity space. To be at the source of one’s strength is to be that strength itself, and it compensates for the lack of family wage he is unable to muster and thus essentially becomes the master of the house. A what-if crosses the mind – (a) instead of a depressed wife, it was a kid (child labor) negotiating his way, or (b) it was the man himself – and would it have altered more in quality than quantity our reaction to the predicament. I might be thinking of Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma, and I also might be digressing.
I return to Sandra, and wonder if she is the representative of the working class, and if it is her versus the system. Or, as the central premise goes, is it as simple as her and her co-workers pitted against each other by the unscrupulous capitalist entity, making it a case of pure working-class exploitation (the factory building might as well have a giant moustache to be twirled), and hers a tragic case of hopelessness ala High Noon? The film is indeed about her meeting all her co-workers and convincing them, individual to individual, like 12 Angry Men. But then, all of those individuals are defined by their families. In one case, it is a wife, in another it is a daughter and a wife, in another it is a wife and a baby, and so on and so forth. And thus emerges the broad outlines of my interpretation of the film rather being about the tussle between two social institutions powered by self-interest – the family versus the capitalist entity – and also a reason for me to change the paragraph.
Now, because the Dardennes provide no time to understand Dumont’s (the owner of the factory) motivations, which is I suppose understood/assumed to be the capitalist’s greed/selfishness, let us talk about the Family, and the families. Let us begin, taking our cue from Heaven’s Gate list the families and their compositions one by one.
Sandra and Manu – husband (chef/waiter), wife, two kids
Juliette – husband (mends cars on the black) and wife
Julien Lemmens – wife and a kid.
Kader – not specified (talk over the phone), probably plot-point to get Sandra motivated for the mission.
Mireille – divorced, with a new husband, starting life from scratch.
Willy – husband, wife and kids (number unspecified, but one daughter to go to college)
Nadine – has a daughter
Timur – has a daughter, and an unspecified family.
Hicham – wife and two kids
Yvonne – father and young son, both working at the same place. Representation of the proletariat family and generational workforce. Son seems to have a girlfriend, and since he drives off, could be considered as a case of nuclear family.
Miguel - ?, plot-point to get Sandra out of the bed.
Anne – husband, whom she leaves.
Alphonse – wife and daughter.
Dominique – alone at the door.
So, except for the guys on the phone, who become plot-points for Sandra’s odyssey, and for Dominique who obliquely refers to his family when he says he is the sole breadwinner, all of the others are profiled via their families, bringing home a clear representation of the heterosexual workforce. That makes me wonder if bachelors, or guys with alternate orientations aren’t capable enough to provide a dramatic foil to the narrative strategy here, which is essentially about a woman who has lost her identity to the extent she is losing her very voice (at times literally) going through a journey of door-to-door of rejection and ego-destruction. All of us, or at least me, who have been rejected in job interviews, know exactly what I’m talking about, where your identity and worth become one and the same, and where repetition is the key. It is like part of you dies inside every time, for those few hours. And yet the next call fills you with hope, so that you brace yourself to die again. I sure am making it sound melodramatic, but when the job enters and disrupts the personal sphere and you so desperately need an exit, it does feel like that. And I’m also beginning to wonder what would happen if Interstellar and this one here were to swap narrative strategies, and if either of them would benefit any.
But coming back, would bachelors, or let us say guys with no apparent, or let us say obvious families, come across as needlessly selfish for they do not so desperately need that 1000-euro bonus? Because believe me, that is not true, for that very lack of obviousness, I’ve young guys in my office working from Friday evening to Monday morning with no time for home. These young guys, with their own dream of the bourgeoisie dream of families, are probably to us (I work in the IT industry) what women and children were to men during the early industrial age – cheap labor with twice or thrice the output. So, would their claim to selfishness be any less legitimate than say Hicham’s or Willy’s? There’s also a guy at the end, on Monday morning, Sandra meets in the locker-room, and by appearance he looks to be a bachelor. But then that’s not the point.
You see, the film justifies the selfishness of the people Sandra meets by presenting the needs of the family, which are for obvious reasons assumed to be absolutely necessary. The families, or the Family, is thus automatically absolved of any guilt, or at least of the guilt that is attributed to Dumont and his factory, and rather it is entitled to be selfish to seek the bonus (a welcome surplus, mind you) because it is necessary for their survival, since they seem to have planned their lives (like college expenses for the kid) around that surplus. I mean, the family never has enough, do we? It is a lovely little institution this, borne out of man’s inherent need to find a personal space and room of control beyond his own body, and encircled by a common factor – mostly blood, or race, or religion, or whatever. I’m no anthropologist, and these are mostly freshman efforts at theorizing, and family does provide man the satisfaction of thinking beyond himself, of caring for a body that is not him (philanthropy), and at the same time makes it all limited to the confines of his circle. It is the bastion of a moral framework he believes in, a private space that is to be protected from the public sphere’s ills but benefited by its riches, and in a way, he is having the cake and eating it too. It takes a great deal out of us, isn’t it, caring for our community – like say pooling funds to repair the building you live in, when you aren’t one of the owners as opposed to when you are on. I hate to put it this way, but the image before me is of a virus, that much like capitalism, can adapt to the societal needs. It could be extended, in a marketplace where home production is the key, or it can cut itself off and be a nuclear one, or it could exist in several forms. The essential bit is that it adapts and survives, and if free market applies the Darwin principle to the capital class, so does it should to the family.
So yeah, as sure as hell capitalism exploits the man’s need for this anchor, doesn’t family – broadly defined as an earning member(s) and dependents joined together by a common moral/religious framework – use it to survive and thrive in return too? Here’re a few questions then – aren’t Dumont and his factory comparable when they’re selfish enough to seek that bonus? Is Sandra, with her pitifully frail figure, a convenient representation of the family (as opposed to say Manu himself)? Are her travails about her locking her light-saber (family) with those of the other workers? Is it better, for say her community, if all the workers get their bonus, as opposed to her getting her salary, especially when the final moments suggest victory in (a) her finding her voice/stand and (b) her looking for a new job? Also, which selfishness is one entitled to and which one not, because mind you, we’ve no idea how good or bad Dumont’s factory is doing. Are the profits in place, or is he struggling to keep them up in this tough economic situation where everyone is fighting to survive? You see, that is what troubles me regarding Two Days, One Night – the representation of the workforce and the families, with their details listed above, as specific units, but Dumont and his factory given a short shrift by giving no details, and thus in a way making them a representation of the system (capitalism) itself, when the latter is as much a unit as the workforce and their families are. To pit a specific against a representation is to obfuscate the issue, and maybe even simplify it.
The way I see it, Two Days, One Night is about one unit (Dumont/Solwal) trying to maximize its position by exploiting the other units of workforce to get rid of a specific unit (Sandra), which in turn gets around propagating guilt-complex (a form of exploitation?) so as to get back. If it had been Mr. Cronenberg behind the camera, I would have got the opportunity to read Sandra’s (powered by Manu) movements across the length of the frame, in all directions and essentially haphazard, as a Jean Painlevé-like treatment of the proletariat family unit. Forget about the whole boxing match one round here one round there structure, and forget about the whole deal with suspense about the final score of the poll. What had me worried, throughout, was if Sandra and Manu would pull through together at the end of it. There were two kinds of spaces – the external ones at the doors, and the internal ones, in the cars or on the bench, or in the hospital ward – and the health of the latter was I suppose the narrative’s primary concern. What’s really lovely about all of it is that they are in one piece at the end of that weekend, and when she is speaking to him on the phone after the poll on Monday morning, you know the love has only grown further. Her face is the site, not of the capitalist exploitation, but of love fulfilled. I know Manu would be a very happy and contented man, and as much as Sandra is seen walking down to the road for the struggle ahead, I have the feeling that they are going to have what might be the best sex of their lives.