Friday, January 9, 2015

On s'est bien battus

Deux jours une nuit is a mesmerizing film about tenacity, human nature and the meaning of value. It traces the story of Sandra, a mother of two, who struggles with depression and anxiety but is given the chance to recover her job in the timespan of two days and one night. To do so, Sandra must confront her sixteen colleagues over the weekend and convince at least nine of them to cast a vote on Monday morning that will decide whether she gets to keep her job - or whether she will lose it while her coworkers, now fewer in number, will receive a 1000-pound bonus.

Sandra ou la prime? is the question that is asked before the votes are cast near the end of the film. Sandra or the bonus? These words pithily capture the primary ethical question that looms before us in the film: Compassion or pragmatism? Utilitarian or egotism? 

Such a question, difficult as it already is, is further complicated in the film. Sandra, for instance, is not an indispensable worker. Thin, bedridden and dependent on Xanax, she herself questions her competence and self-worth. If her colleagues choose to keep her, therefore, they will be doing so purely out of humanitarian reasons. Furthermore, her colleagues must take their own financial bearings into account when making their decision. As Sandra visits their homes, the audience realizes quickly that the people she works with also belong to the lower-middle class of Belgian society. Some work double jobs, some live in dingy apartments.  

What is most intriguing about the film is, of course, the ways in which the colleagues respond to Sandra. The first man she meets seems almost willing to side with her, but his wife interjects and angrily reminds him that they have to pay their daughter's college tuition. Another colleague, Nadine, flat-out refuses to even answer the door. She instead makes her daughter do the dirty work and pretend that no adults are home. It is Timur, on the other hand, who shows the most empathy - crying, even - when Sandra approaches him. It is also Timur who reminds Sarah of a time when she once showed him kindness; I suppose there is still good karma after all.

At the same time, Sandra's meetings do not simplify down to yeses and nos. Alphonse, for instance, struggles because he is afraid that Jean-Marc, his contremaître (and the one who threatened the colleagues to vote Sandra out), will revoke his contract upon knowing that he decided to vote for Sandra. Graver still, Sandra's visits - as she herself notes - provoke conflicts, ranging from spats between spouses to actual fistfights between employees. The miraculous turn of events is that one of these fights finally pushes Anne, one of the colleagues, to leave her abusive husband. There is the idea that Sandra's visit offers her sixteen colleagues the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and reevaluate. Yet how many choose to do so? It is fitting, then, that the vote ends in a draw. Indeed, this ending works out not only because it elaborates the plot, but also because it perpetuates the question the film asks: Sandra ou la prime? 

The presence of children in the film is particularly striking. Firstly, the fact that almost all of Sandra's colleagues have children means that the question for most of them is not only Sandra ou la prime, but also Sandra ou la prime [et le bien-être de ma famille]. Moreover, the children add a layer of innocence and lightness to the otherwise heavy, adult-dominated film. It is lovely that a child walks her to the laundry room as she heads there to meet Alphonse. Despite all the unkindness that she has been shown by some of her coworkers, not a single child looks at her meanly. So, it is ultimately Sandra's children and her dedicated and tenacious husband, Manu, who form her backbone. It is them for whom she fights. 

Throughout the film, we often see Sandra under sunlight as she rushes from door to door; instead of appearing illuminated or emboldened by the glow, however, she appears weak and overcome. Yet this is in stark contrast to Marion Cotillard's performance. Capturing anxiety and despair but also renewed hope and gratitude, she powerfully portrays a character who - despite feeling like "un mendiant" -  persists with her long journey to rediscover self-worth. She is fearless and flawless.

Deux jours une nuit is truly a film that deserves the 15-minute standing ovation it received at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival!