Before our daughter was born last year, I was reading an article on some films that won special accolades at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and two of them I could particularly remember — Leviathan from Russia and Deux jours, Une nuit from Belgium. Deux jours, une nuit particularly drew my attention due to Marion Cotillard, who is undoubtedly one of the most prolific French actors of our times, along with Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris. I tried to watch the film around that time and could not find any source. Finally, in 2015 July, I found a copy in the world cinema section at the HMV shop. Needless to say, I snatched it within seconds. On one August Friday night, I decided to watch the film, sacrificing a much precious night’s sleep, and this has changed my perception of western Europe as well as incited a moment to reflect on the priorities of life.
First a short synopsis of the film itself, which one can find in Wikipedia or IMDb. Marion brilliantly portrays Sandra Bya, a mother of two children, working in a factory. She recently suffered from depression and was off work, and just recovered to be back to work soon. During Sandra’s absence, her workload is shared by other sixteen workers with some overtime. The owner M. Dumont presented a dilemma to these sixteen workers — they could either continue to work extra and get a €1000 bonus whilst Sandra loses her job or when Sandra is back, all will go back to regular shift and they don’t get any bonus. The story starts when Sandra gets the news that a vote took place on Friday, in an open forum and under the influence of the foreman, who is not in favour of Sandra getting her job back. She meets the owner on Friday afternoon and the owner assures a repeat vote on next Monday, which would be a secret one, and if the majority voted for Sandra to stay foregoing their bonus, he will keep her on. Most of the film then revolves around the next 60 hours as Sandra personally attempts to meet all sixteen co-workers to vote for her to stay, and their decisions. Some felt guilty and compassionate immediately and assured they will vote Sandra stay, the rest apologised for numerous personal reasons. Towards the end, with a few unsure ones, Sandra goes to work on Monday and the result comes out as a tie. The owner offered to keep her job although a tie meant she has not had the majority, but on condition that one of the trainees will have to be laid off later on. Sandra declined to offer, was bid adieu by all her colleagues who voted for her, and comes out of the factory brimming with her confidence, that she lost through her illness, and Sandra calls Manu to say <<Nous avons bien battu>> or we put up a great fight.
The film deserves special kudos for Dardenne brothers for deciding to make a film on disability and workplace discrimination, which are very pertinent issues around Europe. Marion Cotillard is flawless in her characterisation of Sandra, with all her vulnerabilities, doubts, hesitations and portrayal of a person with depression — on the brink of foregoing all the progress made by medication and being away from stresses at work. For most of the film where Sandra is shown to have a dejected, resigned demeanour, with her tired face and a wry smile, the film brilliantly showed flashes of her personality, the part of Sandra we didn’t get to see in the film. The supporting cast was eclectically chosen and they all played their part very well — especially Manu as her loving husband trying to give her confidence whilst looking after the children and taking Sandra to all her colleagues when he had time off. The makeup and costume are also worth accolades — Sandra’s ashen face and attires of a working-class woman made her characters very real. It stands to reason why this Belgian/Italian production has won a 15min standing ovation in Cannes and set Marion Cotillard for her second nomination for the best actress role. Even though Deux jours, une nuit is an outstanding film, it struck a chord in my mind for two other reasons.
The first reason was location, although it was partially flawed. Since I started to learn French in 2006, or even before that, I was fascinated by French cinema. Old and new, I have watched quite a few films before Deux jours…; however, there was one big change since I watched the last French film. I visited France for the first time in February this year, and then made three subsequent trips of which, the last one was a week long. So, to some extent, I could now relate some of the facts to my own experience, and France has seen in French films was not a utopia anymore, it’s something real and part of my life. Watching Deux jours… created the same sensation as would have done by a film about Calcutta, or London. And here is the flaw I mentioned before. Deux jours, une nuit is a Belgian-Italian co-production and shot in Belgium, so I was partially misled thinking I was watching France, whilst it was Belgium. Nevertheless, I can’t say that my assumptions and imageries were entirely untrue either, as I also went to Belgium twice this year. As a result, I could see that the surroundings of the film could well be related to my memories in Belgium. Little insignificant moments, like seeing how it feels driving along the other side of the road, the sauce piquante offered with pizza, houses with orange tiled roof, Buses with ticket machines to scan — they all make the film appear much more personal, as if I was there, with Sandra, following her with a camera.
The second but most significant factor why I found Deux jours… phenomenal, is its purpose — the storyline. It’s not an epic drama, nor an action-packed thriller, nor a portrayal of a larger than life personality on screen…it’s a story of a woman, who could be your or my neighbour, or even, the story of ourselves. The social angle of the film made a large fraction of the crowd to identify themselves or someone they knew of, in the situation. The workplace discrimination for disabled or people with depression, the difficulty of re-engaging someone back after a long-term sickness, small industries turning employees one against another in order to stay afloat in this age of fierce competition, keeping employees constantly under threat of being blacklisted — all such instances are seen or heard of in everyone’s life. For some, it’s just a harsh reality of life we live in. This is the story of western Europe’s working class, for whom it’s a struggle for existence every day, a constant battleground to find one’s feet. As the film progressed, the viewers can see the convoluted schemes of the management, leaving the choice to the employees, if they want Sandra back, but creating fear saying if Sandra is back, someone else might be fired. The struggle for existence is picturised in many fights one encounters in the film — couples fighting each other, employees fighting one another on the issue of keeping Sandra, Sandra fighting her inner evils of giving it all in in the face of despair — fights that characterise the struggles one has to go through for people on the breadline. Not that those eight people, who voted against Sandra, had anything against her, but they all are part of the mechanism, where one can’t afford to go against the tide. In the minimum wage, they still want to make ends meet or live the consumerist dream — house, car, clothes, renovations, holidays — a €1000 was worth much more than sparing a thought about a struggling employee. Deux jours… also tried to depict a comparison between a class divide, although this could be my preconceived notions judging instances how I wanted to see them as. Those who rather wanted the bonus than keep Sandra, were better off than the ones, who offered to back her, and they would rather have the €1000 to spend on the consumerist utopia. Being in the higher rung on the social scale made them more susceptible to the demons of capitalism — to be less compassionate and more focussed on increasing their wealth. However, the vices of Europe’s working class society is best expressed by the words of the colleague of Sandra, who refused without hesitation to help her, saying “I wish you keep the job tomorrow, but if you do I will be heartbroken”. This exemplifies how people are pushed to a situation, where they have to choose between their survival or someone else’s. In such desperate situations, Sandra’s taking all of her anti-depressant pills shows just so many people are stretched to their extreme limits of tolerance and so many people today are in a situation like Sandra in the film and fighting to stay adrift in the quicksand.
However, amidst all despairing struggle, there are positives to take away as well, and an optimistic ending, when Sandra, after a weekend-long toil to request everyone to keep her job, actually offered one, but at the cost of one apprentice, who voted for her, and she chose to quit the job rather than let the owner try to fight one employee against another one more time. Throughout the film, there are snippets of optimism emerged in small bursts at most unexpected moments, that instil hope in the minds of the viewer that life under constant struggle and predicament still has moments of joy and happiness. Moments when Sandra, Anne and Manu drove back on Sunday night — with Sandra just back from hospital after taking the pills, Anne having broken up with her abusive partner, and Manu worried how Sandra would react if she were to lose her job next day — all three desolate souls, still managed forget all their woes and turn the Rock channel on car audio and sing along the tunes. The film also portrays the inter-relationships amongst the employees in a multicultural society, where a number of Sandra’s colleagues, with whom she hardly had any friends, had offered to help her out by voting for her, which is remarkable especially for the migrant families, who perhaps have no social security and money to send out to families abroad.
Deux jours, une nuit made me reflect on the priorities of life and how we see ourselves in this world. When we speak of Europe especially the western part of it as the vanguard of social infrastructure and most powerful and wealthy nations of the world, the working class still has the same trials and tribulations as anywhere else in the world. Although the hardship is comparative between working class of a first world to a third world country, and perhaps life of a first-world working-class person, as portrayed in this film would be a life to dream for by a third world worker — it only proves that life in western Europe is not bed of roses and people there too, strife every day. Also, when people from the middle-class background, like myself, worry about financial situations, this film blows apart that mindset, where people worry about a life that billions would die for. Deux jours, une nuit again emphasises the importance of being humble to the means of life one has and not snigger at working-class people as being lazy and defeatist.
Then, thinking about the film again, after the upsurge of emotions was over, that in the end, this is a film, not a documentary of people from real life. Marion Cotillard is a superstar — she must have earned Millions for the role of Sandra Bya, who lost her job for €1000. The film was screened at Cannes, with opulent film personalities gathered together from all over the world, spending millions on their French riviera retreat, whilst characters like Sandra in real-life persevere every day for their existence, far away from the pomp and limelight that the film and its cast would be basking in. Deux jours, une nuit has struck a chord focussing on the working-class life in Europe, bolstered by a sterling performance by Marion Cotillard; yet, outside the silver screen, the film has failed to create awareness and a form a movement to improve the lives of millions of Sandras. Their strife does not finish at 95 minutes and with a <<Manu, nous avons bien battu>>…