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The Dardenne brothers: Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers are Belgium’s most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. Jamie Steele discusses their latest film Two days, One night.

When discussing francophone Belgian cinema, the Dardenne brothers immediately arise as a crucial starting point. In 2005, the Dardenne brothers joined a select group of filmmakers to have won the coveted Palme d’Or on two occasions – the first in 2000 for Rosetta (1999), and the second for L’enfant/The child (2005).

The Dardenne brothers’ latest film, Deux jours, Une nuit/ Two days, One night (2014), did not receive such valorization and acclaim at Cannes in 2014, but it was their first film to achieve ‘national’ recognition at the fifth Magritte awards in 2015. The Magritte awards – the Belgian equivalent of the French Césars – commenced in 2011 as a means of celebrating francophone Belgian filmmaking.

Two days one night

Deux jours, Une nuit/ Two days, One night (Dardenne brothers 2014)

That said, the film is a tripartite international co-production between Belgium (46%), France (44%) and Italy (10%). It also draws upon a regional source of funding in the shape of Wallimage (the regional funding mechanism for Wallonia).

The Dardenne brothers once ludically noted that it was not possible to produce a film in Belgium without funding from France, and all of the filmmakers’ works post-1996 have been co-productions. The film’s 6.9 million budget is the largest that the Dardenne brothers have worked with to date, and is more than double the average Belgian film budget (which is around 3 million).

In an interview for my PhD thesis (back in 2011), Wallimage’s head, Philippe Reyneart, stated that the true ‘domestic’ market for francophone Belgian films was France. This assertion was made because francophone Belgian films receive higher levels of film admissions and box office receipts in France than in Belgium.

Deux jours, Une nuit certainly adheres to this pattern with 520,352 admissions in France compared with only 61,996 in Belgium. In 2014, the Dardenne brothers’ film received the highest number of film admissions of any francophone Belgian film in both France and Belgium – its closest rival Pas son genre (Lucas Belvaux, 2014), which recorded 351,233 admissions in France and 33,498 in Belgium.

Transnational influences

The idea for the film’s story bears witness to transnational influences. The Dardenne brothers have openly discussed how the idea for the film was inspired by Michel Pialoux’s essay ‘The Shop Steward’s World in Disarray’ in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological study Misère du Monde/Weight of the World.

Pialoux outlines a series of events that occurred in the new Peugeot plant in Sochaux (France) in the 1990s which chime very much with the story of Deux jours, Une nuit. He highlights the breakdown of collective solidarity between the workers on the assembly line, with – at times – a parlous atmosphere being created between the foremen and the workers. This was particularly the case with the bonus system in which a bonus could be lost through the weakness of a certain individual

We see these issues at the centre of Deux jours, Une nuit when Marion Cotillard’s character (Sandra) attempting to persuade her co-workers to forgo their bonus so that she can retain her job. The petition – recounted in Misère du Monde – is altered to a vote in the Dardenne brothers’ film. This vote highlights the increased atomised state of the working environment on the factory and plant floor.

The film also highlights the fear of the foremen – those who can extend short-term contracts for temporary and peripatetic workers – so that an individual can also achieve a stable and consistent job. The Dardenne brothers have also outlined a series of other influences for the story, including Francois Bon’s work on the closure of the Daewoo plants in the Lorraine region of France, articles in Le Monde on the financial crisis in the USA, and news bulletins on the tough decisions that individuals had to make with their finances in Belgium.

Universal themes and issues

A study of press articles written on the Dardenne brothers’ film provides an interesting – and particularly revealing – understanding of how this film is discussed and perceived in Belgium, France, and in the UK. Nick Cohen’s article for The Observer – entitled ‘Two Days, One Night: a film that illuminates the despair of the low paid’ – uses the film as a starting point for a wider discussion on issues of employment as a result of the financial crash in 2008.

Cohen outlines the insecurity of employment in the catering and hospitality sectors, and notes the shift to greater levels of self-employment. Both of these trends in employment have led to a difficulty in maintaining a sense of solidarity amongst workers.

Other British press reviews of the film, such as Peter Bradshaw and Steve Rose of The Guardian, foreground the issues of labour relations, solidarity and unions, drawing comparisons to British films such as Bread and Roses (Ken Loach, 2000) and Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014). These articles discuss universal themes and issues that can be equally understood in a British context

This engagement with the theme of collective solidarity brings to light issues with employment contracts in a post-2008 Europe. It calls to mind the difficulties in holding down a consistent job in a neo-liberal economy and society at a time of austerity, given the predominance of peripatetic, ‘bulimic’ and temporary employment contracts – as well as issues in the UK with the introduction of zero hour contracts.

Regional identity

The universal themes and issues addressed by The Guardian and The Observer begin to suggest that the film could be set ‘anywhere’ in a post-2008 Europe. However, this approach does begin to overlook the social and political context of the space in which the film is set – the Belgian town of Seraing.

The town grew up around the metallurgic industries – and since the de-industrialisation of Wallonia in the 1980s – Seraing has become one of the worst affected areas in terms of unemployment in Wallonia. According to recent statistics, around 24.5% of the active population is unemployed.

Seraing is the location for all the Dardenne brothers’ films post-1996 apart from Le silence de Lorna (2008) – the town appears only in a painting on the wall of a nightclub in the neighbouring city of Liège. The Dardenne brothers’ upcoming film La Fille inconnu/The Unknown Girl (slated for a 2016 release) is due to be filmed in Seraing in the autumn of 2015. The filmmakers have a personal connection to Seraing, as it is where they grew up and were schooled.

In Deux jours, Une nuit, the location is identifiable through the brief glimpses of La Meuse, the river that runs through the heart of the town, and the steelworks. In the Dardenne brothers’ second phase of filmmaking (post-1996), social issues have been noted and discussed in detail, particularly themes of marginalization, social exclusion, social fracture, sentiments of abandonment and a loss of a ‘regional’ working class identity.

Camera and the body

In the French film magazine Positif, Jean-Dominique Nuttens places an emphasis on the physicality of Marion Cotillard’s performance, discussing the pre-occupation with the body and the obstacles placed in front of Sandra. Stéphane Delorme, editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma, similarly discusses the emphasis that the Dardenne brothers place on characters and how the narrative is constructed through their movements and interactions.

By focusing on one character and an individual, the Dardenne brothers are showing us the atomised state of the current society. The individual is traversing the town in order to recover a sense of collective and solidarity amongst a group of workers. This certainly begins to nuance some of the aforementioned issues and themes.

The relationship between the camera and the body chimes with the Dardenne brothers’ film style, which Luc Dardenne outlines in his journal – Au dos de nos images (first published in 2005). This style includes the use of a handheld camera, filming ‘close-up’, the camera following the movements of the body, the use of non-professional or unknown actors, no use of non-diegetic music, and it must be produced on a low budget.

This filmmaking style is couched in ‘realism’ – in a Bazinian sense – with the use of long takes (arguably incorporated into their film style with Rosetta) and the handheld camera. Both of these aspects are particularly prevalent in Deux jours, Une nuit, with each of the long takes focusing the spectator’s attention to the subtle nuances of Sandra’s movement through the town of Seraing and her series of interactions with colleagues at the solar panel factory.

The casting of the Gallic star Marion Cotillard in the role of Sandra deviates from the Dardenne brothers’ conventional use of non-professional actors, such as Jérémie Renier in La promesse (1996) and Emilie Dequenne in Rosetta (1999). The Dardenne brothers first met the star whilst they were co-producing the French-Belgian De rouille et d’os/Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012). This casting decision certainly shone an extra bright light on the Dardenne brothers’ work beyond Europe, with Variety interviewing the filmmakers in advance of the Oscars. (Cotillard received a nomination in the Best Actress category)

Deux jours, Une nuit captures the universal themes of social precariousness and instability of employment in the current neo-liberal capitalist economy in Seraing. The shift of collective responsibility to individual responsibility is forged through the focus on Sandra and the indelible connection between the camera and her body. This is brilliantly highlighted through the jerky handheld camera movements that emphasise Sandra’s struggle to “resist” – borrowing the verb that Luc Dardenne uses to open his journal – and encourage her colleagues to reform a sense of union and collective spirit.

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