Unto Others, by Scott Nye
What is our responsibility to the people in our community? And what defines a community? Are either even worth considering? These questions have been at the heart of every debate surrounding American culture for the past six years, since the economic recession forced us out of prosperity and into desperation. Despite this, and despite numerous films attempting of-the-moment, how-we-live-now depictions, very few American films have dealt with them. “Social justice” is not a very fashionable topic in an age in which some (often very prominent) religious denominations actively discourage the very term. Those films that do consider it a worthwhile conversation typically indulge in reductive ideals, encouraging the idea that there are really only one or two “bad guys” pulling the strings, and that the rest of us are really actually good people once you get to know us.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night offers no such comfort. It takes for granted that the capitalist system is unconquerable, and that acts of charity are not enough. It takes foundational overhaul, which starts with the workers themselves. Before even the film begins, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has recently learned she has been fired from her factory job, following an extended absence due to a severe bout of depression. Worse yet, her termination resulted from her coworkers voting her out in favor of a €1,000 bonus. The film opens on her at her most hopeless. But her closest friend on the staff believes this decision came about from intimidation, and they quickly convince their boss to hold another secret ballot the following Monday. Sandra now has one weekend to convince sixteen people to vote in her favor. One by one, she visits and calls everyone who will decide her fate.
As is common for the Dardennes, Sandra is not financially well-off, and it’s clear immediately that she desperately needs this job to help support her family. But then, her coworkers are doing the same job, and just as desperately need the bonus. Sandra is the film’s fulcrum, but she is not its only subject. The Dardennes’ empathy extends in all directions; they mourn the selfishness those voting in favor of the bonus are forced to assume. Some have heavy debts. Others risk losing their temporary employment if a permanent employee is brought back on the payroll. Very few are outright cruel. As this nuance allows us to better understand such a position, it also paints the actions of those who agree to set aside temporary relief to benefit the long-term stability of another in the properly heroic light. It’s no small thing to sacrifice €1,000 when you’re barely scraping by.
Beyond that immediate tension is Sandra’s still-overwhelming struggle with depression. The Dardennes ensure we sit through every uncertain moment in the conversations she has, forcing us to watch again and again as she outlines her situation and begs her coworkers for their generosity. It’s a tall order for anyone, but Cotillard plays directly into her character’s fragility, looking like she could crumble to dust at any moment. Every step she takes is a monumental obstacle. She speaks frequently of giving it all up. Who could blame her? Cotillard has never been shy about expressing herself, but she slightly plays down her tendency to go big, directing the energy and doubt inward, making her body a bundle of nervous energy, her rehearsed speech the only crutch she can grasp.
The structure of the film is thus slightly unusual, yet as rigid as a board. The title promises a general timeframe, and the Dardennes nicely remind us how far along her path she is, and how far she has to go. The trials become akin to something like the Stations of the Cross, often repetitive, but tinged at all times with the possibility of peril. The film’s true religious theme, however, is in a reflection on the Christian ideals of unity, humility, compassion, and sacrifice, all of which extend outward to the ideals of social justice, a philosophy greatly embraced (like the Stations) by the Catholic Church, or at least every Mass I’ve attended. Like the Catholic faith, Two Days, One Night is rigidly-structured in a way that doesn’t diminish individual struggle, but rather draws us together around it, making us all complicit; responsible for and indebted to one another. What hope can we have for the system to save us if we don’t help save one another? Uncomplicated and beautifully wrought, Two Days, One Night is a spectacular example of drama as spiritual reflection, free from mention of religion but deeply invested in fundamental beliefs. It is the best film I’ve seen all year.