It’s probably safe to assume that you recall the fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs. In case, however, you’re a folkloric vegetarian, it centers around a certain Big Bad Wolf who, like a wandering salesman, travels to the poorly constructed homes of three pig siblings, knocks on their respective doors, then begins huffing and puffing and blowing their houses down. His attack isn’t completely architectural: he then eats the pigs (all but the last, who, SPOILER, built his house out of bricks). But what, you might well ask, do the Three Little Pigs have to do with the Dardenne Brothers’ captivating new film, Two Days, One Night? More than you might think, in fact.
The film, which stars Marion Cotillard, uses a fable-esque reliance on escalating repetition, culminating in a moral climax. Sandra, who recently suffered a bout of depression, is laid off from her job at the solar panel factory where she’s been working. Between her income and her husband’s, as a waiter, the couple was earning enough to keep themselves and their kids out of government subsidized housing. The most twisted part of her layoff is that the decision was reached based her coworkers’ vote: they were convinced they’d lose their 1,000 Euro bonus if Sandra stayed on board; if she left, they would earn the money that would have gone towards her salary. It’s like slaughtering an animal and dividing up its parts — for the crucial cause of nourishment and survival!
Her former boss agrees to a re-vote, which leaves Sandra with a weekend to convince all of her coworkers not only that she’s both able-minded enough to work her job and financially in need of it, but also to convince them to surrender their bonuses. This might (or, let’s be honest, might not) be an easier task if she were talking wealthy or even middle class coworkers out of 1,000 Euros, but among all of her similarly struggling colleagues, there’d be weight to this loss.
To maximize her ability to sway votes, Sandra goes door to door, each time reiterating the same assertions to each colleague, almost verbatim. After a while, the film starts to greatly resemble a children’s book, where one character repeatedly poses question, à la “Are you my mother?” or “Are you my Missing Piece?,” to various characters, resulting in differing, and revealing, outcomes. Cotillard’s Sandra is set on a moral journey that similarly mirrors those experienced by the characters stuck in these streamlined, explanatory tales.
In Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, there’s an impressive vulnerability to the almost-fully-circular character’s interactions: he/she/it confronts a series of triangles and essentially proposes to them, asking if they’ll fill his/her/its void for eternity. Until the end, each encounter is met with disappointment, and it’s not only the encounters themselves that so elegantly illustrate the almost-circle’s raw desire, but the moments of increasingly woebegone wandering in between: it’s in the liminality of the character alone, rolling across a flat, barren plain, that we most clearly see his/her/its fight against meaninglessness, set, as he/she/it is, against a backdrop of relative nothingness.
Similarly, in Two Days, One Night, almost half of the shots seem to feature Cotillard walking between these more punctuated moments. Each time she sets out after either another victory, disappointment, or even revilement, she carries with her the weight of the past encounter, which butts up against her apprehension for the next. For, each time she asks a favor, she experiences humanity — both her own and that of the person she’s soliciting — stripped down to its most raw and (sometimes defensively) defenseless. What Cotillard so beautifully and magnanimously depicts in these transitional moments is the result of the taken-for-granted human power to emotionally move another human. In the residue of her interactions, we see Sandra, and the story, at its clearest.
Of course, the world of this film is far from whimsical or folkloric — it’s set in a lackluster, working-class Belgian suburb. But by reformatting the often more ambiguous adult concepts of financial desperation, familial responsibility, personal obligation, mental illness, and, most importantly, selflessness around a storytelling structure that ekes a clear moral from its every interaction, we see that, beneath the moral opacity of the human experience, lies the constant question of whether to act selflessly or selfishly. While in life this often remains subtextual, the objective of Sandra’s journey is to make a moral dilemma visible — to embody it — and to make others verbalize the weight of their moral response. For this, she’s often feared by the characters whose homes she’s visiting. As she approaches, they don’t see Sandra, but rather their own moral dilemma. While Sandra struggles with the desire to be seen as a person, she knows this is not the time: she needs to represent the dilemma.
And, like a pig hiding from the Big Bad Wolf, one of her coworkers — one who Sandra assumed was her ally — cowers in the modest fortress of her apartment when Sandra comes ringing her doorbell. Sandra’s need for charity turns her awkward, earnest pleas for help, in the eyes of her colleagues, into “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.” The victimized character — again, the character whose job was liquidated, its monetary value doled out to her hungry coworkers — here becomes vilified simply by asking a colleague not to victimize her.
The wolf is coming to steal the pigs’ flesh; her coworkers fear, similarly, that she’ll be stealing their bonuses. To be fair, and to complicate matters, the bonuses don’t merely mean bonuses to these people: for some, it’s the money they use to keep their children in school. For others, it’s money they’re expected by their spouses to earn, or else (one woman seems to have to choose between Sandra’s career or enduring domestic violence).
It boils down to a question of whether people are willing to inconvenience themselves and make their lives more stressful in smaller, but not insignificant ways, in order to prevent the complete ruin of one person’s life. Since few of them seem to know Sandra too well personally, this would be more an act of blind faith than obligation. Some, it turns out, are fervently generous — one man, on seeing her, breaks down weeping and professes his guilt for having voted for his raise in the first place. Others are fervently, even belligerently, unwilling to entertain the idea of giving up 1,000 Euros to save the job of their depressive colleague. The children’s-book formula therefore opens onto a political allegory about the self-interest and possible rewards (and therefore the necessary counterbalance of others’ impoverishment) of capitalism versus the small and mutual sacrifices of socialism.
Sandra becomes acutely aware of the burden she brings with her to each doorstep, and begins to question whether her own life is worth the damage to others’. She is demeaned and reduced by the journey she must go on to save her job, to the extent that she begins resembling a repetitive character in a children’s book. The film intelligently shifts the identities of the characters of a moral tale. Sandra, the protagonist, induces fear, as though she were a villain. Because what’s scarier, to people who want comfort, than someone uncomfortable — someone who reflects just how easy it is to fall into an abyss? Indeed, what’s scarier, both for the beggar and those they’re begging, than charity?