TAKEN TOGETHER, the Dardenne brothers’ six narrative films can be understood as working out the moral possibilities of a very specific place and time. All their films take place in Seraing, a small industrial suburb in Belgium where they were born and raised, and all their films explore the particular ways that this contemporary moment bears on lower to lower-middle class working people. The Dardennes work with a handful of non-professional actors who appear in all or most of their films in roles of varying importance. For instance, Olivier Gourmet plays the lead in The Son, and a bartender with a single line in The Kid with a Bike; Jeremie Renier plays a young working boy in The Promise, a twenty-something criminal in The Child, a drug addict in The Silence of Lorna, and a negligent father in The Kid with a Bike. In depicting these familiar faces in this familiar town again and again, showing them grow and shift, succeed and fail, the Dardennes’ films encourage the sense that we are now trapped in this perpetual present, returning again and again to some traumatic scene — late-stage global capitalism — in order to see what possibilities for life are left.
Their films have been consistently praised for their philosophical richness in articulating the forms of and conditions for moral action within social, political, and economic conditions that massively outstrip individual choice. Their characters routinely face real moral dilemmas and must decide what to do, yet they are so fully absorbed by a world that never relents that there is almost no time or space for cool reflection or considered deliberation. The filmmakers’ characteristic style involves very tight shots, with the camera trailing behind characters in constant motion; there are very few establishing shots, very few opportunities for orientation. If they want to show where a character is or who she is with, they swing their camera around like a panicked animal. Indeed, they film with great interest — a holdover from their documentaries — using the camera more as an engaged participant than a neutral observer (an interesting comparison here is Robert Altman, whose camera also seems animated and captivated by the action; yet whereas Altman explores everything with curious and leisurely detachment, the Dardennes remain riveted to their protagonists). Their films are claustrophobic and oppressive, a feeling that applies as much to the audience’s experience as it does to the characters themselves. In The Kid with a Bike, there is a shot of a young boy in his foster home bunk, who has just been asked to get out of bed: at first Cyril is almost invisible, lying flat under his sheets. Then he begins to kick and roll around under the sheets, boxing at his covers, kicking energetically but getting nowhere. This is a good picture of what the Dardennes’ world can feel like.
Their new film Two Days, One Night departs somewhat from all of this. In terms of form, the camera is less jittery, and there are far more medium shots and filming of unobscured human faces. The inner life of the protagonist Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is more elaborated and we are given greater access to it; we learn, for instance that she takes medication — and took a leave from work — for depression. Moreover, the plot itself seems to evidence a change in the way the Dardennes grapple with moral questions. In Two Days, the moral question driving the film forward is brought to a level of philosophical abstractness that borders on pedantic. The film follows Sandra, a young factory worker and married mother of two, as she tries over the course of a weekend to convince her coworkers to give up a 1000 Euro bonus so that she can keep her job. The solar-panel company she works for is downsizing, and on Friday the workers were presented with a vote: Sandra’s job, or their own bonuses, and they voted for the latter. Thanks to the encouragement of an energetic friend, Sandra convinces her boss to allow a second vote by secret ballot on Monday; she argues the first vote should be discounted because factory foreman Jean-Marc had pressured the voters. Over the next two days, Sandra approaches each of her coworkers in person, and presents them with a choice: will they take the money or save her job?
It can be tempting to understand the film in the following way: Sandra presents a moral dilemma to her coworkers, conceived as a general dilemma between egoism (voting for their raise) and altruism (voting for her), and this is repeated a dozen or so times. Indeed, some critics have complained that the movie becomes contrived and repetitive, with one reviewer pointing out that the same conversation doesn’t need to be heard on 14 separate occasions, that we get the point within the first half hour.
But perhaps something different is happening. It is worth asking why the Dardennes present Sandra’s question as a series of repetitions. What is the significance of the fact that Sandra’s question is reiterated repeatedly — to the point that the question, in its later versions, comes to sound like a script, the urgency and intimacy of the earlier versions drained away? While the critical reviews seem to think that the serial repetition functions didactically and redundantly, reiterating a single idea ad nauseum, I think the idea that there is a single conversation, or a single moral choice, is exactly what the Dardennes are calling into question. By structuring the story around a dozen or so personal interactions, the Dardennes are proposing that we cannot make sense of what Sandra is asking apart from the very specific conditions of each particular encounter, such that each time she asks a new person her question, she effectively asks a new question. There actually is no abstract moral dilemma, no general alternative between egoism and altruism. By telling this story in the form of a series, the Dardennes challenge the very idea.
The first person Sandra approaches wants to help her but cannot; his own financial situation is not flexible enough to give up his bonus. Another man would like to help but is himself both a temporary worker without a contract, and black, making his position doubly vulnerable. Still another person has to delay making her decision because her partner, who wants to remodel the house, is abusive. Here, the viewer’s own appreciation and judgment of the case palpably shifts from one moment to the next: when, in response to Sandra’s question, the coworker notes that she and her husband are renovating, it is easy to scoff at such superficial aspirations to which she seems wedded even in the face of a pleading person. But then we find out that her husband is aggressive, possibly violent, and it becomes apparent that she does not enjoy the kind of freedom to decide that we’d simply assumed. By repeating and restaging this encounter again and again — what will you choose? what will you choose? what will you choose? — the Dardennes show that there are real, non-negligible psychic and material constraints on moral choice, so much so that we lose our grip on the idea of a simple opposition between self-interest and morality.
At the same time, the Dardennes do not glorify or overemphasize individual uniqueness, they do not suggest that each person is wholly his own. Instead, as with their other films, Two Days is animated by a complex conception of human life as both singular and serial. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that understanding an individual and his personal decisions involves situating him vis-à-vis the others, and appreciating each of their positions in light of the various socio-economic factors that govern their lives. Moreover, the characters themselves make sense of morality in reference to one another and in roughly similar ways. Sandra, for instance, repeatedly asks her interlocutor to “put yourself in my shoes,” and sometimes her interlocutor asks her to do the same, suggesting not only the familiar idea that morality requires abstracting from one’s individual position, but that deeply personal moral choices invoke impersonal and shared moral frameworks. And before making their decision, many of her colleagues ask Sandra how the others have decided to vote, or how many have elected to vote for her. This is not just a way of avoiding difficult deliberation by deferring to others’ choices. By asking about the others, these characters demonstrate that moral decisions are not made in a vacuum and do not make sense in isolation: each scenario reflects and is reflected by the others, and each character understands what he or she is doing with reference to those others. Whatever it is that Sandra is asking of her fellows, this cannot be gleaned from a single instance; and whatever ought to be done in response to her request will not be decidable once and for all. The cumulative effect of the series of encounters is the sense that whatever the final vote turns out to be, there will be real losses. Our initial conviction that “voting for Sandra” is absolutely the right thing to do comes under pressure.
And there is a second moral difficulty being explored in the film, namely whether Sandra is right to be asking others to help her at all. Sandra herself is deeply ambivalent about whether or not her mission is justified, and it is tempting at first to conceive of her reticence as a symptom of her depression, a signal that she does not value her life as she should. Indeed, Sandra throughout the film battles a constant temptation to give up, to stop trying, to get back into bed, to end her life; her depression pulls her down and the world she inhabits seems tilted against her. So it might seem that as viewers, we are meant to root for her, to hope that she will finally take her life seriously and feel justified in her quest. But by arriving on someone’s doorstep and presenting them with two options, Sandra puts these people in the position not only of having to choose and tell her which option they elect, but of having to reveal the sources of vulnerability and precarity that trouble their own lives. One father discloses to her that he is already working illegally on the side and needs the bonus; a couple tell her that they are selling floor tiles to make ends meet; a man angrily asserts she had no right to come at all. So it is not only not obvious what choice they should make, it is not obvious whether these or any individuals should have to shoulder this choice at all; something both they and Sandra recognize, as evidenced in their insistence that they did not choose to be in this position, that this impossible scenario is not their fault.
Interestingly, it is not those who choose their bonuses that best reveal the moral ambiguity of Sandra’s question, but the ones who choose to help her. There is an emotionally confusing scene with a man Sandra approaches while he coaches kids’ soccer. After she explains why she’s come, he breaks down sobbing, apologizing profusely that he had even considered taking his bonus if it meant she would lose her job. Sandra is a bit taken back by his emotionality at first, but as she walks away — after he has pledged, dramatically, to vote for her — she is smiling and obviously buoyed by their encounter (and in very un-Dardenne fashion, she is filmed straight on, moving freely in the sun, face unobstructed). While she had felt hesitant to ask for help before, she now seems inspired by the idea that she is facilitating a kind of moral and emotional upheaval in herself and others; that her request, far from functioning as something that separates her from others, might actually be a source of connection and intimacy. But one feels uneasy with this man’s response: he seems to take on too much guilt, to assume as his personal responsibility what is not exactly his to bear, nor exactly Sandra’s either. So his decision to vote for her does not satisfy us the way we thought it might.
One character is evoked throughout the film and not seen until the very end. Jean-Marc is the factory foreman, and Sandra repeatedly refers to him as manipulative. Because he was present at Friday’s vote, Sandra argues it should not count and there should be a second vote on Monday. Sandra explicitly understands her own efforts as opposed to Jean-Marc’s, as an antidote to his overt manipulations. But it isn’t clear that her requests for help are not themselves forms of manipulation. By arriving at someone’s home on the weekend, isn’t Sandra trying sway them in her favor by, we might say, showing them the real human cost of their decision? And yet if that is how we read her actions, it also isn’t clear that we are right to assume that a personal request for help is manipulative. Are we so hardened against acknowledging human neediness that we are suspicious of every display of it?
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno said that the wrong life cannot be lived rightly. He meant that in conditions of advanced global capitalism, where individual lives are so thoroughly formed and deformed by economic and political systems trained on the accumulation of wealth and power, the idea of private morality enacted through individual choice is incoherent. If every human effort can both be rigged in advance and reabsorbed by an inhumane system, then the personal aspiration to live well or rightly is a fantasy.
This is a bleak vision. And while the Dardennes certainly hold that we are in the midst of the wrong life, they often present clear moments of human decency, of doing the right thing, of characters responding with real moral aliveness to each other. These films often focus on such moments as they arise in relationships between adults and young people: in The Promise, a boy resists the momentum towards the callous moral indifference encouraged by his father, by keeping his promise to a migrant worker and young mother; in The Son, an adult resists the momentum towards retaliation in response to a child’s actions; in The Kid with a Bike, a stranger assumes the enormous emotional, financial, and personal burden of fostering a young boy riddled with anger. The prospect of good intergenerational relationships suggests, cautiously, that the future might not be fully captured by the present, that there remains a kind of openness to living and living together better. It is less certain whether Two Days holds open the possibility for right living.
There is a moment near the end of Two Days that is striking for recalling us so emphatically to the Dardennes’ other films; it happens right before the vote on Monday morning, with Sandra in the staffroom at the factory, ensuring that she has spoken to everyone face to face. She has almost, but not quite, secured enough votes to keep her job. Near some lockers she approaches a blond young man with a heavy brow and heavy eyes that make him seem both tough and thoughtful. Sandra tells him her story and he responds, sincerely, that he will think about it.
This moment presses especially hard on the heart, because this character is played by the same actor (Morgan Marinne) who played young Francis in The Son. In that film, Francis is about 16 years old and just out of prison, where he spent five years for killing a child. By divine fate or mammoth bureaucratic oversight, Francis is assigned to a carpentry group for at-risk youth facilitated by the father of the very child he killed. The film centers on that father, Olivier, as he uncertainly works out what their relationship could be. The ending does not guarantee that things go well, but it suggests that the future for both Francis and Olivier might be not wholly ruined by their tragic shared past.
To find what could be (though is not, not really) a grown-up Francis in the locker room solicits a sense of uncanny recognition and familiarity, as though we realize only now that we know this world and these people better than we’d thought. To see this particular face in this place is to feel that we’ve been here before, to realize that while we thought we’d been moving forward, were somewhere new, we’ve really just stayed in the same place (like Cyril struggling in his bed sheets). In this same scene, the villainized foreman Jean-Marc finally shows up, and he is played by Olivier Gourmet, who plays the father in The Son. When the camera swings round from Morgan Marinne to Oliver Gourmet, it feels not only as if this is a familiar world, but that this is the only world, the only place we’ll ever be. So the Dardennes present another question about repetition: what do they mean by showing these familiar faces in new roles and relationships? By returning again and again to Seraing, by calling on the same persons to act out new scenarios, what are the Dardennes trying to say about human and moral possibilities? And again, what is the significance of the fact that the questions and problems explored by the Dardennes are presented, not in the form of absolutely unique characters in self-contained stories, but as overlapping series of differences and repetitions? Their work fights against the urge to use cinema to provide relief from this life, binding and re-binding us to the rhythms of this world.
The film ends by confirming that there is no unambiguous way out. The vote, it turns out, does not fall in Sandra’s favor. After she learns that she has lost her job (a second time), she meets those who did vote for her in a separate room, and thanks them. Her boss then calls her up to his office and tells her, happily, that they have found a way to keep her job; it simply means that one of the uncontracted workers will be let go. By following the truly touching scene of Sandra hugging each of those who voted for her with this grotesque illustration of bureaucratic brutality presented as benevolence (and the expression on Sandra’s face confirms that the manager’s offer really is perverse), the Dardennes demonstrate that there will be no single or grand conclusion to Sandra’s effort, no final transcendence of the machinery that makes her life so unstable, and certainly no moral transaction between individuals that could constitute anything like salvation from wrong living. This is not to say that kindness counts for nothing, but that it does not count for everything we’d hoped; private morality might be called for, and maybe it even saved Sandra, but it will not transport her or anyone else to some better life. It merely gave a moment of respite and comfort before returning everyone to where they were. As Sandra walks away from the factory, the film cuts to black, but unlike their other movies, Two Days lets the natural and industrial sounds of this world continue as the credits roll.
Thanks to Robert Pippin and Tom Krell for conversations about these films.