Survival Act

 

 

Three years ago, a BBC World Service survey of 11,000 people in 23 countries claimed unemployment was the world’s fastest growing concern.

While corruption and poverty ranked highest in the poll, 18% of people identified joblessness as their main worry – six times higher than the level recorded in 2009.

Unemployment preoccupied people the most in countries struggling with the recession.

In Spain – a country which saw youth unemployment hit 40% – over half of those polled had discussed unemployment recently.

The fear of losing your job is the narrative force that drives the latest movie by Belgium’s most celebrated filmmaking duo, the Dardennes brothers.

‘Two Days, One Night’ stars French Oscar winning actress Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a worker in a solar panel factory whose job is under threat because she has been off work for a protracted period of time suffering from depression.

When we first see Sandra, she is awoken by a mobile phone call.

We learn the call is from her union rep, informing her that the factory owner, Bastite Sornin’s Monsieur Dumont may lay her off because colleagues have voted to keep the 1,000 Euro they have been receiving for working an extra three hours in her absence instead of allowing her back to work.

Catherine Salée’s Juliette informs Sandra that her co-workers were swayed by fearmongering from their Machiavellian foreman Jean-Marc, who is mostly unseen in the movie but played in the final sequences by Dardennes regular, Olivier Gourmet.

Juliette, however, manages to get Sandra a stay of execution on the grounds that Jean-Marc unfairly influenced the vote by lying to his co-workers that their jobs would be at risk if she returns.

She persuades Monsieur Dumont to rerun the vote in a secret ballot, giving Sandra 48 hours to lobby her colleagues and save her job.

What follows is what can only be described as a recession thriller, with Sandra battling her depression to doggedly pursue nine votes out of a total of 16.

At times, you doubt Sandrine can summon up the mental and physical strength to lobby her colleagues as she periodically suffers panic attacks that constrict her throat and pops Xanax into her mouth like they’re Smarties.

Luckily, she is propelled along by the rock solid support of her dedicated husband, Fabrizio Rongione’s Manu.

But it is an emotional rollercoaster as we see every showdown with every colleague as she begs for her job.

Some colleagues bullishly and aggressively refuse her. Others are full of remorse and shame as they fall on either side of the vote. Others are supportive.

‘Two Days, One Night’ comes to cinemas fresh from its triumph at the Sydney Film Festival and with a host of enthusiastic reviews at Cannes.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Cotillard turns in a committed performance as a woman clinging desperately to her job by her fingertips.

It’s a very believable and sensitive performance, with Cotillard avoiding the temptation to emotionally manipulate her audience by hamming it up.

Every gesture, every word, every facial expression is credible.

The same is true of the entire cast – especially Fabrizio Rongione as her husband, Christelle Cornil as a co-worker Anne and Hicham Slaoui as another co-worker, Hicham.

Over the past 25 years, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have established themselves as the darlings of European social realist cinema alongside Ken Loach, Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh.

They’re part of a select band of filmmakers to have won the Palme d’Or twice at Cannes for ‘Rosetta’ in 1999 and ‘L’Enfant’ in 2005.

Their best known film ‘The Kid With A Bike’ received almost universal acclaim in 2012 and was an arthouse hit around the world.

‘Two Days, One Night’, in many respects, is like a Belgian cousin of Loach’s contemporary workplace dramas – most notably ‘Riff Raff’ and ‘Bread and Roses’.

Like all classic social realist films, the Dardennes use minimal music, natural locations, handheld cameras and long takes to stirring effect.

British and Irish audiences will be struck by the fact that the housing and industrial estates of Seraing in Belgium don’t look too different to the grimmest urban landscapes of Manchester, Glasgow or Dublin.

As with all great realist filmmakers, the Dardennes also manage to extract moments of real magic from the most desperate of situations.

The one scene where music does surface in the movie is really uplifting and it involves a blast of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’.

‘Two Days, One Night’ has been described by some critics as an industrial western.

Call it what you will but there is no denying the Dardennes Brothers have delivered a gripping and very human movie about a fight for economic survival.

They know how to build up tension.

But mostly, they can thank Cotillard for anchoring their tale with such an honest, compelling performance.

(‘Two Days, One Night’ opened at the Queen’s Film Theatre and other UK and Irish cinemas on August 22, 2014).

 

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