The Dardennes’ Laboring Body in ‘Two Days, One Night’

Although one might hesitate to call this a propaganda film for labor, it nonetheless expresses concern for those who labor by exploring how precarious working conditions affect one’s daily lives.

“The body has the most important role.”

— Luc Dardenne

It’s well known that the Dardennes privilege the body in their cinema. Their films are comprised more of gestures than words. As Luc Dardenne has noted, “Perhaps by filming the gesture as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen.” (“Taking the Measure of Human Relationships,” Cineaste, Summer 2003)

Yet, less noticed, is how a single-minded focus on labor and work often accompanies the Dardennes’ cinema of the gesture. Their 1999 film Rosetta opens with its lead character frantically being followed by a handheld camera from behind as she storms towards a coworker who might have said something that led to her termination. Her foreman temporarily intercepts her before she punches him in the gut and continues to swing wildly until he collapses on the floor.

She’s soon apprehended by security as the camera struggles to keep her resistant body in the frame while she lunges at the guards and grabs at random lockers to prevent her removal. We are witnessing nothing less than the complete animal desperation of a young woman attempting to keep her job in a post-industrial economy where precarious labor rules and the well-being of workers lags a distant second from that of accumulating profits and shareholder satisfaction.

This concern with labor and work stretches all the way back to the Dardennes’ early video documentary work in the ’70s, when they were trained by Armand Gatti to make militant documentaries regarding working-class life in Liege. For example, When Léon M.’s Boat Went Down the Meuse for the First Time (1979), included as an extra with Two Days, One Night, follows Léon Masy, a militant trade unionist, who takes his boat down the Meuse river to identify some of the key locations during the 1960 general strike in Belgium, which is considered to be one of the last great general strikes in Western Europe.

The video opens with a rapid montage of Léon constructing his boat: welding and hammering steel, measuring distances, sanding rough edges. He’s largely shot from behind, a trademark shot that the Dardennes will employ in their later fictional films to draw the viewer’s attention directly to the body’s movements and its subtle gestures. The certainty of Léon’s actions in constructing the boat while a perpetually smoking cigarette dangles from his lips reveals a well-trained body that acts with precision and efficiency. As Jean-Pierre Dardenne notes during an extra accompanying the video, “The boat was a way to reclaim all the skills he’d been prevented from using at the factory, because he’d been a specialized mechanic, but they marginalized him, and he was left pushing a few buttons to monitor some pumps.”

The video also addresses the aftereffects of the decline of labor militancy following the general strike. Léon’s boat trip serves as a metaphor for someone at sea, caught between wavering tendencies of despair and hope or as the video puts it: between the river that is wedged between reality’s shores and the seagull whose weightless flight suggests the freedom of future possibilities.

These two tendencies of hope and despair run like a vein throughout all the Dardennes’ fictional work, with their earlier films tilting slightly more towards despair and their later ones edging closer towards hope. Additionally, many of the films are concerned with deteriorating working conditions following the fall of the era of big Labor and industrial capitalism. The Promise hones in on the inhumane working and living conditions that accompany the exploitation of undocumented migrant labor. The Son (2002) pays meticulous attention to the graceful moves of its protagonist Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) in training his apprentices in woodwork. L’enfant (2005) chronicles the economic desperation of a young mother who decides to sell her baby for sustenance.

Two Days, One Night resonates strongly with Rosetta in that both films follow a woman’s desperate need to stay employed not just for sustenance, but also for a sense of self-worth. The film was partially inspired by a case study found within Pierre Bourdieu’s book The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Further news accounts about small companies forcing workers to either accept bonuses that would necessitate the firing of a fellow worker or refuse bonuses to prevent any termination strongly influenced this tale of a young woman, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who had been on sick leave due to depression, fighting to maintain her job after most of her fellow workers had voted for her termination in order to receive bonuses.

After a friend of Sandra’s convinces the boss that the foreman unduly threatened workers to vote for her dismissal, a new anonymous vote will take place on Monday. As a result, Sandra has two days and one night to speak with those who didn’t vote for her to convince them otherwise to change their vote on Monday.

Needless to say, Sandra finds it humiliating to beg her coworkers for her job. In her first phone call to a fellow worker, Sandra is framed from behind. Her head is tilted down and her arms are close to her body, suggesting her reserve and shame. Her voice is flustered and quiet with nervous pauses and gasping breaths. Before she can even ask if he will vote for her, she needs to temporarily collect herself, removing the phone from her ear as she stares determinedly off-screen, summoning up her courage. These small gestures hint at the strong inner turmoil that consumes Sandra.

Cotillard, a star who has acted in such Hollywood films as Inception (2010) and Contagion (2011), minimizes her style to fit within the Dardennes’ discrete style of acting, reminiscent of the minimalist style found within the films of Robert Bresson. Cotillard holds an uncanny ability to relate Sandra’s inner thoughts and feelings through the smallest of gestures. For example, she relates her complete betrayal through her facial reaction when she overhears Nadine, a co-worker whom she considers a friend, quietly coaching her child to say that she is not in when Sandra calls her apartment on a building intercom. A flash of anger suddenly covers Sandra’s face when she says, “I heard you, Nadine. Why won’t you talk to me?” The intercom suddenly hangs up, causing Sandra’s expression to fall and stare blankly while her body slightly droops. Anger has been overcome by depression.

Yet the film remains careful not to demonize Sandra’s coworkers. As she visits each, we learn that many of them occupy equally precarious and desperate situations. When visiting one of her male co-workers, for example, she quickly learns that his wife is unemployed, forcing them to moonlight in restoring old tile on their days off. Another African worker, Alphonse (Maidy Ankaye), fears being terminated by the foreman for voting for Sandra, since he only works on yearly contracts. Another male worker berates himself for initially voting for Sandra’s termination. He breaks down crying as he tells her, “I am so glad you came by.”

Two Days, One Night eloquently implies that even though we are mainly following Sandra’s story, her co-workers have equally compelling stories and difficulties plaguing their lives. They are all enmeshed within the non-unionized world of post-industrial capitalism, where bosses displace the blame of their cruel business logic onto the shoulders of their workers by forcing them into impossible situations that pit worker solidarity against small economic gains. Workers are now called associates. Worker solidarity is replaced with notions of corporate team building. Shared labor conditions are dusted under the rug for a management logic that implicates everyone in the cutthroat system of capital accumulation and hyper-individual competition. The very fact that the Dardennes dedicate such care to laboring bodies within their cinema, where the gesture trumps empty rhetoric, signals a resistant cinema to the logic of capital that wants to efface labor and fragment workers from one another to not recognize their common conditions.

Sandra’s fight for her job and her growing sense of certainty and self-assertiveness in the process also rubs off on some other characters. Anne (Christelle Cornil), a coworker, wants to vote for Sandra, but her domineering husband attempts to prevent her. As Anne expresses her concern, her husband storms out the front door yelling at Sandra, “You enjoy pissing people off?” He then forcibly grabs Anne by the arm as she looks at him with disgust. Later, Anne appears at Sandra’s door, stating that she will vote for her and has left her husband. Sandra and her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), allow Anne to stay with them in the meantime.

A touching seen follows soon afterwards of the three in a car. Anne and Manu accompany Sandra to the final coworkers she must visit. Van Morrison’s “Gloria” begins playing on the radio. Manu turns up the volume while all three characters begin bobbing their heads in rhythm. The camera moves in an uncut shot between the characters: Sandra in the passenger seat, Manu driving, and Anne in the backseat. They begin to sing along and smile at one another. The camera glides over their faces, showing their reactions and interactions with one another, encapsulating a sense of solidarity building out of the struggle Sandra endures.

If anything, Sandra’s sense of self-determination and independence rubbed off on Anne to not only vote for her but also escape from the yoke of her husband. Sandra’s struggle to maintain her job has translated into Anne’s struggle for independence at home. The professional and personal seamlessly intertwine.

Sandra’s full sense of solidarity with her fellow workers manifests itself at the film’s end when the boss says she can have her job back only if Alphonse does not have his contract renewed to offset her position. She states to her boss, “I can’t let someone be laid off so I can come back.” He replies, “He won’t be laid off. His contract just won’t be renewed.” She comments, “It’s the same thing,” looking directly into his eyes.

Unlike the earlier sequences where Sandra was bent double, barely able to speak, she now holds a certainty in her poise and her beliefs. Rather than accepting corporate euphemisms that mask firings with the language of “non-renewal” and benefiting from the very system that pits workers against one another (and almost caused her to lose her job in the first place), she stands up and leaves. While having lost her job, Sandra has gained something more important: a sense of pride and shared understanding of what unites her with her fellow workers, regardless if they consider each other friends or not.

Although one might hesitate to call Two Days, One Night a propaganda film for labor, it nonetheless expresses an intimate concern for those who labor by exploring how precarious working conditions affect one’s daily lives, personal relationships, and sense of identity. Labor is not simply something we do; it structures our lives and very being. The film reveals how labor and its attendant struggles extend beyond the factory’s walls into our homes. Furthermore, the film expresses how the most important thing emerging from our labor is not the profits that it reaps, but instead the communities and bonds that it fosters as people struggle for a sense of respect.

RATING 9 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.