A labor union as defined as “an organization of wage earners […] for mutual aid and protection and for dealing collectively with employers.” The intension is that workers look out for one another, as one unified body for egalitarian treatment.
The Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night pushes this institution in a different direction. Sandra, a worker in a solar panel factory, recovers from a sick leave only to find out her sixteen co-workers, when presented a choice between laying her off and earning raises for themselves, voted for her termination. This tragic irony lays the foundation for the entire film, as Sandra is left with no choice but to contact her colleagues, one by one, and convince them to keep her in the work force, and vote against their own raises.
As the film unfolds, and Sandra encounters more of her colleagues – calling them on the phone, meeting them at their homes, in local parks – the concept of union and teamwork does decay, not out of malicious self-interest but of each individual’s obligations to others. Nearly everyone she contacts needs the raise, for unselfish reasons: to send their children to school, to pay off debts, to build a better life. Sandra’s journey evolves from need, borderline desperation, to one of empathy. Her added visibility into her co-workers’ lives only contributes to her sense of union and community with them.
Two Days, One Night doesn’t even have a real villain; their foreman, Jean-Marc, is often a scapegoat for instigating the initial conflict and manipulating the workers’ vote, but when Sandra confronts him about it, he denies any such involvement – and he is completely believable.
In a way, Two Days, One Night reminded me of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. Both involve one individual, drifting throughout his or her community, with the real narrative shaped by their treatment of the protagonist. Indeed, the most compelling moments of this film were the reactions of the “others;” what immediately comes to mind is a very moving scene of Sandra’s co-worker breaking down in front of her, overcome with guilt for how he’d voted, vowing to support her in the next ballot.
Without spoiling, the ending of the film works on an emotional level, reflecting Sandra’s own evolution, while makes less sense within the narrative. The desperation her character feels due to her situation, and her obvious love for her family, make the final scenes not 100% clear – even though they do flow from the emotional-journey perspective.
While I wouldn’t consider it one of the best films in the Criterion Collection (and I probably won’t pick this one up myself), it is a worthwhile viewing particularly for its complex moral/political conflicts.