I want the millions of people who marched in Paris on January 11 in response to a terrorist action that left 12 people dead at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly that often publishes cartoons that many Muslims find offensive, to watch Two Days, One Night, a new film by Belgium's Dardenne brothers. They need to watch this movie because the unprecedented reaction to Islamic extremism made it obvious to many on the left that the priorities of millions of Europeans are in complete disorder. If you are a citizen of an EU country, in the middle or working class, and concerned about the state of democracy in our post-crash world, then you should be far more worried about what is going on at the European Central Bank than at the mosques in the banlieues (suburbs). Terrorists have nothing on bankers when it comes to making the lives of ordinary people miserable. If there's going to be drama in your life, expect it to come from the people who have the power to hire or fire you, change interest rates, and impose policies that deflate the economy rather than a bunch of bozos who think shooting cartoonists is a military mission.
The real human drama is found in the opening scene of Two Days, One Night. After the credits, we see a woman sleeping on a sofa. A red cushion with brown embroidery is under her head. Judging from the movement under her closed eyes and the rate of her breathing, her sleep is not very deep. The ring of a mobile phone immediately wakes her. She sluggishly rises, walks to a chair, picks up a bag from the seat of the chair—the bag is as plain as her face, her body, her clothes, her furniture and decorations—opens it, and retrieves the phone from its cluttered depths. But just after she answers the phone, still wiping the sleep from her eyes with her free hand, something starts beeping from another room. She enters the kitchen, places the phone on the counter, opens the oven, retrieves a very plain pie, places it on the top of the stove to cool, and resumes talking on the phone. We hear a woman's voice. She sounds a little serious. Finally, the person says something that hits the woman hard. She hangs up without warning and puts the phone down. What has just happened? What did the person on the other end of the line say to her? The phone rings again—she rejects the call. This looks bad. The women goes upstairs, enters a bathroom, and bitterly swallows pills as she stands in front of the mirror above a sink. She looks up. Tears fill her eyes.
The woman is Sandra (Marion Cotillard, who I really hope wins the best actress Oscar), and what she has just learned from the woman on the phone, Juliette, is that she has lost her job at a solar-panel factory. Her boss, we soon learn, made her coworkers a stark offer: He can let Sandra go and they get their year-end bonus, 1,000 euros, or Sandra can stay and they get nothing. The company can't afford her and the bonuses (there are 16 workers in all) if it hopes to remain competitive. This is not about management being mean. It's about the realities of the world market. The Asians are making cheaper and cheaper solar panels. The Asians are ruthless. The Asians have lots of cheap labor. If the factory doesn't drastically cut costs, then the factory will close and everyone will lose their jobs. Who has not heard this argument before? Naturally, her coworkers voted for the bonus. These are tough times. Class solidarity is a thing of the past. In our post-union age, what matters first is you, your job, and paying your debts.
The reason Sandra does not completely implode after hearing the bad news is that her loving husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who is a cook at a local cafeteria, encourages her to fight for her job. All is not lost. There is still a chance. The company did not follow correct voting procedures, and so she has the right, by law, to demand it be retaken. A second vote is scheduled, and this gives Sandra the span of a weekend to go to each coworker's home and beg for her job. This campaign is the plot of the whole film. Each person she confronts has a different reaction to her plea. And we know from the opening scene that Sandra is not stable, that she is already under a great deal of emotional stress, already on the verge of a mental breakdown. And with good reason. The precariousness of contemporary work is hard on the nerves.
The genius of the film's opening—the sleeping, the call, the waking, the bad news, the tears—lies in its use of a familiar Hollywood trope for a completely unexpected purpose. The drama of the call we see in studio film after studio film usually leads to a person learning that a loved one is in a coma, or receiving the demands of a kidnapper, or some other melodramatic variation on what screenwriters are forced to call the "inciting incident." The Dardenne brothers, who have yet to make a bad movie, allow the common drama of losing a job—which is far more horrifying than a bomb to the average person—to light the fuse of their story. This is a rare example of filmmakers actually keeping it real. If you say Sandra is being ridiculous, that maybe she is a little soft in the head, that there is more to life than your job, then you are missing the point of the scene. Austerity policies, high unemployment, poverty, home foreclosures, humiliation, uncertainty, and exclusion are all forms of violence, as pointed out by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (they estimate that in the United States, the 2007–09 recession resulted in 4,750 "excess suicides"). And yet we never really speak of the very real and very dangerous and very common forms of economic violence. Our newspapers and movie screens are instead filled with a kind of violence (terrorists detonating explosives in public places) that almost none of us will ever encounter.