“Some people are so rich they forget what it means to live with so little…”
This naturalistic, socially grounded film reminds me of a rather intense discussion I once had with UL. We debated how far a person should go in protecting someone from her own decisions. Tucked away in a hip café on the bourgeois side of suburban town, supporters at the coffee table rallied on mainly one side of the argument.
The vast majority opposed to help came from positions of self-preservation and tough love; decrying the “let her sink or swim” and “you can’t fix someone who doesn’t want to fix herself” maxim. In short they would rather this person EARN self-reliance. The outlier
s in favour of help agreed it was important to “equip her with the resources to self-sustain (within a reasonable time limit).” In short they were in favour of GIVING self-reliance. Resources in my opinion refer to more than just the tangible and material in economic reality. Social, emotional and moral support are forms of internal resource as well.
Our discussion soon evolved into one of self-reliance: earned versus given. The question: Isn’t it better for someone to earn self-reliance instead of having it handed to her?
All things considered, the ebb and flow of reality is far from simple. I wondered if anyone was capable of rectifying their own behavioural faults in the short span of time necessary to ensure their mental well being and survival aren’t compromised (sink or swim)… and further, not allow these faults to lead to other problems in life? None that I could see based on what I’ve learned about increase in mental stress and the impact it has on cognitive resources.
A case of the knapsack problem… imagine going on a very long trip. If you bring a large 80-litre knapsack, packing is an easy task with plenty of room to store whatever you want. The task of packing is a breeze… you might even have room to spare for a few extra items. With a tiny 20-litre knapsack, packing becomes a much more complex task and you are forced into a much more difficult position for this journey. Not every important item will fit, therefore you are being put in the situation of trade-offs. When this happens, what you choose to remove if another item is added, undergoes severe scrutiny.
Now, this knapsack can represent any form of resource. In the case of money, someone with adequate funds can easily afford all necessities required to function as a human being in modern society. In contrast, when someone is forced to scrimp and cut corners, some other items will have to be sacrificed and abandoned. The gist of it is this — having insufficient resources makes living life and exercising sound / moral decisions much more stressful and complex to endure. Increased stress is taxing on limited cognitive resources, in turn, hampering other facets of day-to-day living and decision making. This is a well-documented psychological trend with experimental evidence. When the average person suffers repeated assault by stressors; the ability to adjust to life and function well becomes compromised. The extent of damage differing.
That was the basis of my position. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of Darwinian theory (or Ayn Rand’s self-interest philosophy for that matter): why interfere when mother nature exists to straighten out the weak? I found the notion of sink-or-swim a simple roadside act that plays to reflexive “common sense” — didn’t resonate with me then and still doesn’t resonate with me now. Not especially after watching Two Days, One Night: a simple, yet incredibly powerful film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’enfant).
The Dardennes do not tell morality tales. Even though their characters navigate practical dilemmas that challenge their moral stance. This moral stance in turn, corresponds with realities in which these characters exist — it is a ramification of larger economic forces that govern the poor and working-class.
It is with that in mind, that the Dardenne’s narrative strategy reflects neorealist tradition and normative ethics. The main point has always been for us, the audience, to observe the conditions in these characters’ daily lives, how they conduct themselves or negotiate problems and resolve dilemmas. In a Dardenne film, we’re allowed to engage unobtrusively with an open mind. Without passing judgements on what these characters choose and how they arrive at those choices eventually.
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) is set against the backdrop of an industrial town in Liège, Belgium. Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard) is a working-class wife and mother who earns her living in a solar panel factory. After a nervous breakdown, she is forced to take a break from work. The duration of her absence isn’t known to viewers, but sufficient for supervisor Mr. Dumont (Batiste Sornin) to notice it was possible to cover Sandra’s work if all 16 workers pulled an extra 3-hours per shift.
Soon, the factory’s management proposes €1,000 bonus to each staff if they agree to make Sandra redundant. By the time Sandra returns to work and knows what happened, majority of her co-workers had opted for the bonus. Factory foreman Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet) influenced their votes by saying if Sandra wasn’t laid off, maybe they (her co-workers) would be. Regardless, her fate has been sealed via democratic means.
Concerned friend and colleague Juliette (Catherine Salée) appeals to Mr. Dumont and negotiates a secret snap ballot. Everyone will vote first thing Monday morning — will they choose the €1,000 bonus or Sandra? Because the factory’s management surely could not afford both.
Two Days, One Night refers to the weekend: rest days where hard workers retreat in comfort to the sanctuary of their homes and private lives. When Sandra is forced to intrude people’s lives on a precious weekend, visit each and every one of her 16 co-workers in a bid to change their minds before Monday [I use the word “forced” because clearly, Sandra was embarrassed and reluctant to do it], at one point she laments in self-disgust saying “I can’t stand it. Every time I feel like a beggar, a thief coming to take their money. They look at me ready to hit me. I feel like hitting them too.” But kitchen worker and husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) urges with maturity and understanding, “You have to fight for your job.” Both knew Sandra cannot quite walk away and abandon work at the small factory. The family of four has just recently moved out of public housing. Sandra needs the minimum wage job to keep their heads above the water, to keep from going back to welfare assistance.
Much of the film has Manu drive Sandra around the small town of Liège, as the 48-hours clock goes ticking down with growing intensity. The first dilemma is presented as she goes knocking door-to-door, trying to convince fellow employees to give up a salary bonus that they too, badly need. Times are hard and money is tight, her interactions with each co-worker and their subsequent response to her plea is compelling to watch. Lesser film-makers will settle with a cookie cutter protagonist in need of sympathy, but this isn’t the case with Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
There is a real sense here that the space and reality of Two Days, One Night has the relevance of modern social-political commentary. “Will you vote for me?” — the same question asked repeatedly, is illuminated by varying personal realities. Thus allowing the audience to consider the same situation with changing arguments and evolving perspectives. Every step of the way, the audience absorbs a broad spectrum of humanity as reactions toward Sandra ricochet between doubt and certainty: selfish and cruel, unapologetic and indifferent, defensive and guilt-ridden, conflicted and hesitant, kind and compassionate. At one point, it had me wondering if Sandra, for the sake of some colleagues so dangerously close to the margins of poverty, probably shouldn’t be appealing at all — after all, their knapsacks are so much tinier and more fragile than the sling bag draped across her hunched, bony shoulders.
All the above reflects just one, out of several more thought experiments found in the plot design. One particular sub-plot examines Sandra’s level of resilience as a recovering depressive, and culminates in an episode involving a box of Xanax. Here, Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) turns in her role with master class technique — she applies subdued, matter-of-fact emotional tone with the kind of authenticity and resignation made possible only by an exhausted, dehumanized, defeated soul. Less is accurately more.
When I saw L’Enfant (The Child) at the Alliance Française de Singapour years ago; I was a young adult in her early twenties with the intellectual capital and moral patience of a fish. Coming out of my first experience with the Dardennes, my opinion towards main character Bruno, was straight forward and quite simply, disapproving — what kind of person sells his own newborn child for a meagre sum of money? I left the small theatre with obvious answers and a snap conclusion, partially dissatisfied and disappointed with the film’s ridiculous premise.
Nearly a decade has passed and now having watched Two Days, One Night; I find myself weighing all variables in the complex social totality embodied by one simple observation: “Some people are so rich they don’t know what it means to live with so little…” I no longer believe in moral absolutes with the reckless naiveté of a youth. What an honest, complex and thought provoking film. How wide-ranging and realistic.
What about you — would you have chosen the bonus or Sarah?
Perhaps resign in protest of the management’s business practice?
Is the issue as cut-and-dry as having sufficient money?
LANGUAGE IN FRENCH