Boasting a fiction filmography of titles such as La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), L’enfant (2005) and The Kid with the Bike (2011), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the most notable and successful filmmakers of recent years. At the Cannes Film Festival where six of their films have played in competition, the two Belgian writer-directors have rarely left empty handed. In fact, since the release of L’enfant in 2005 the Dardenne brothers have joined the very short list of luminaries – including figures such as Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica and Michael Haneke – who have won the Palme d’or, the festival and the film world’s highest honour, twice. If the strength of their back catalogue had not already done so, this double honour has safely consigned their names into the annals of film history. While their latest film Two Days, One Night (2014) failed to receive a prize at Cannes, this was not due to any sort of perceived inferiority but to the tough competition the directors faced from filmmakers such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Alice Rohrwacher and Bennett Miller. The film is a triumph, fully deserving the universal critical acclaim it has received both at the festival and alongside its theatrical release. It is their best film since L’enfant and a heart-breaking investigation of the morality, personality and empathy, existent or non-existent, of its many characters. In the Dardennes’ film, sixteen working-class individuals are all made to wrestle with the same dilemma: whether they should sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of another, whether they can bring themselves to empathise with plight of Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard) who has lost her job as a result of their previous actions.
In many ways the film resembles those psychological and economic experiments held at universities, where undergraduates desperate to make a few quid are pitted against each other to see whether the desire for personal gain triumphs collective rewards (where these collective rewards are significantly less than the rewards for striving for oneself). Students here ask themselves whether to choose to take all the rewards for themselves at the detriment of their partner or to cooperate and receive less. According to game theory, the most basic and obvious example being the Prisoner’s Dilemma, most will choose to act for themselves (and indeed in the Prisoner’s dilemma situation it is the most sensible option). I know this because I once took part in such an experiment – I was lucky and took the gamble at the expense of my partner. While my actions may not have been right in a moral sense, such experiments apparently confirm what we all know anyway: that humans are selfish and that we live in a dog eat dog world, where neoliberal attitudes prevail. One of the key differences between the experiment I took part in and the Dardennes’ film was that I didn’t know who I was working against. My partner was merely a numerical figure on the screen, albeit he/she was indeed somewhere amongst many in the long corridor we were sitting in. I would never find out who I was hurting with my behaviour, unlike those in Two Days, One Night who have to live with their actions after the event. For some the monetary reward they received for voting against Sandra’s job will haunt them, others will not be affected. Although the film is definitely not as simplistic as the experiment I have just outlined – it works to demonstrate a range of distinct human behaviours rather than one prevailing attitude, using a cross section of working class Belgian life to present this – and could not be viewed as an objective experiment in any sense, it has certainly awoken memories of my experience in the Psychology and Economics departments. It is easy to suggest that one can read the contrived nature of the plot as resembling the design of an experiment, the boss of the company (Mr Dumont) as head experimenter and the figure of Jean-Marc as an extraneous variable. Like the professors searching for knowledge about human nature through experimentation, the Dardennes appear to do the same, albeit with a political point to make under the surface.
The film opens in Sandra and her husbands bedroom. Freshly relocated in this room after being discharged from the hospital after a battle with depression, Sandra awakens and sets off to work after a long period of absence. On arrival, Sandra learns that she has lost her job, not in the classical sense most will come across on being sacked, but through a vote issued by her employer and conducted by her fellow employees, many of which she previously saw as friends or acquaintances. At some point during her absence, the boss of the company realised that sixteen employees could satisfactorily do the job and that it could survive without Sandra. Her colleagues were given a choice: either vote for Sandra to be sacked and receive a bonus of one thousand euros or vote for her to stay and forego the payment. Unfortunately for Sandra, only two of the sixteen actually voted for her to stay. After fighting her illness for three months and finally feeling able to come to work, this knowledge quickly pushes her back towards this territory with Sandra collapsing into her husband, repeating her perception of her own worthlessness. However, it is revealed that the employees were influenced in their actions not just by a monetary reward but by the fear of their superior Jean-Marc. Jean-Marc, as the principle form of conflict in the film – the equivalent of the Hollywood bad guy, terrified his employees into thinking that if it wasn’t Sandra to go, it would be them next. Upon knowledge of this, Mr Dumont (the boss and man with most power), decides to redo the vote the following Monday apparently without the corrupting influence of Jean-Marc. Sandra thus has two days and one night to convince at least nine of the employees to vote yes on Monday in order to secure her job.
Time constraints are given, a deadline is made and Sandra sets off visiting each employee individually in order to argue her case and appeal to their emotions and empathy. She is accompanied by her husband Manu who’s unfailing support spurs her on to fight for her job and emotional wellbeing. Where a Hollywood director would succumb to a montage sequence to show these scenes, the Dardennes present them in unflinching detail, making use of the realist, long-take documentary style they are famous for. Faces are captured in extreme close-up and the grey landscape of industrial and working-class Belgium is always present in the background. It is perhaps to the power of Cotillard’s performance and the Dardennes’ direction that our emotions are played with so often: while our indignation at Sandra’s treatment increases steadily throughout the film, it is sometimes ruptured by her success in convincing the empathetic, however these moments of joy prove to be fleeting as seconds later our rising anger is easily restored by the inflexibility of some of the employees she visits. Some are persuaded by empathy, and thus have the ability to place themselves inside Sandra’s shoes; one less so by empathy but by religious conviction; others are blind towards Sandra’s plight, surprisingly asking her to step into their shoes; some are struggling so much that the bonus cannot be foregone; others merely wish to build a patio and redecorate the house with the extra money gained from the vote and one young male character even acts out violently as a result of Sandra’s plea for help.
I could not help but ask my self what I would do in such a situation. Ideally, I think that I would quickly vote no but how am to know what extraneous factors may influence my decision. Some questions followed these thoughts, questions provoked by the power of what I was seeing on screen: does voting no equal a betrayal of friendship? Is a yes vote a pity vote? If successful will Sandra ever have the same relationship she once had with her colleagues? Could they make life difficult for her post-vote? Is this not an inhumane way to deal with someone who has just had a nervous breakdown? Should we strive for community, for caring for one another, rather than relentless profit? Who is at fault, the no voters, Jean-Marc, Mr Dumont or the capitalist system (I would argue that the Dardennes would have it that it is one of the last three)?
Throughout all this the Dardennes abstain from sentimentality, from a film score which could influence audience sympathy, instead striving for realism, detail and depth. The accumulation of impressive performances, the sensitivity to social and economic issues and sheer amount of questions provoked by its narrative render the film one of the most powerful I have seen in recent years. I do not think there has been anything better in cinemas so far this year.