Two Days One Night by the Dardennes Captures the Essence of the Society of Its Time

in 59th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Senem Erdine

The Valladolid International Film Festival, one of the oldest film festivals in Europe, established a particular identity during the 90s under the direction of Fernando Lara. However, that didn’t last long, and in the past decade or so Valladolid has been struggling to find its place, as it is kind of squeezed between San Sebastian – the most prominent film festival in Spain – and Seville, which has managed to create a distinctive identity in a relatively short period of 10 years.

That might be the explanation for the rather messy selection of 18 movies in the international competition of the 60th edition of the festival. The selection displayed a scattered diversity, ranging from the most hardcore arthouse movies such as Gust Van den Berghe’s Lucifer to crowd pleasers like The Farewell Party (Mita Tova) which received the Golden Spike award from the international jury. These were presented next to local melodramas like Perpetual Sadness (La tirisia) from Mexico, American indies such as Whiplash and Little Feet, works by veteran filmmakers (Miss Julie by Liv Ullmann, Coming Home / Gui lai by Zhang Yimou) and accomplished works by relatively new filmmakers, among which Daniel Brüggeman’s Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) stands out with its well considered narrative structure and masterful direction.  Stations of the Cross, which is an impressive depiction of the devastating effects of fanaticism on society’s most vulnerable members, was awarded the FIPRESCI prize by our jury.

Yet, I strongly believe that, another movie included in this year’s selection deserves special attention, even tough it was already very well recieved in its world premiere in Cannes. The Dardenne Brother’s Two Days, One Night is one of the best movies in film history in terms of capturing the essence of the society of its time, and displaying an artistic perfection in creating the narrative approach to reflect the influences of that social environment on individuals.

In Two Days, One Night the Dardennes are once more unmistakably true to themselves. All the Belgian brothers films are packed with neorealist humanism in order to, ultimately, talk about how difficult it is for the ordinary human being to lead a dignified life within the capitalist system. It is a known fact that capitalism has the mechanisms for its own perpetuation, and one of them is to prevent union among workers. That’s the basis of Two Days, One Night’s premise: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) spends  the weekend visiting her workmates one by one, trying to persuade them to give up their 1000 euros bonus so that she can keep her job.

What is the appropiate thing for them to do? Though the answer may seem easy, it is not. Most of the workers need the money to pay their debts or simply to survive, and that is why, even though we theoretically know what is right and what is wrong, it is not easy for any of us to decide what we would do if we were in their shoes.

In this sense, even though Two Days, One Night is the Dardennes’ most overtly political film and, maybe for this reason, the one with a most obvious message about the harsh effects of capitalism on the individual, the Dardennes  keep putting us in morally complex situations and fiercely reject the common traps of social realism in movies, such as didacticism, imposed sentimentality, false hopes, and generally speaking, easy answers to difficult questions.

But it’s not only their honest and efficient approach to socially realistic cinema that makes them great filmmakers and Two Days, One Night a great film. There’s also their extraordinary precision in observing nuances and their unique narrative economy which makes sure that every single shot is there for a reason.

It could certainly be argued that the dramatic intensity we saw in previous Dardennes films such as  Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2004) is missing here. That’s partly because we know from the beginning what Sandra’s journey will be like and what its outcome will be. But that’s not what really matters. What matters is what the journey means to her; a woman meant to feel weak, useless and hopeless in a social environment caused by the nature of the capitalistic society,ultimately discovers the strength in herself, finds hope in solidarity and learns the importance of fighting back.

Edited by Yael Shuv