Copyright 2017 by S. J. Munson
Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014) is a Belgian film directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and starring Marion Cottilard. It is an encouraging story of a female factory worker who finds both courage and identity in the face of the betrayal of her coworkers and the intimidation of her employers. The film also depicts the conflict between capitalism and humanity and exposes a very old strategy of exploitation, both of which themes lend themselves easily to a Marxist interpretation.
In order to approach this film from a Marxist perspective, we must first define what we mean by Marxism. In its original form, as developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism is a system of thought that views socioeconomic history through the lens of class conflict. In the capitalist stage of economic development, the class struggle is between the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat, who, having no means of production themselves, must sell their labor for wages. The concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few allows the capitalist class to exploit labor as a commodity (“The exploitation of the many by the few,” [Marx and Engels, Manifesto, ch. 1]). The laborer, who is treated as merely a means of increasing capital, rather than as a being with physical, social, and spiritual needs, therefore becomes alienated not only from her own work, but also from her own humanity (Marx, “Working Day,” 388). The first stage in revolution, or radical socioeconomic change, is the development of a class-consciousness on the part of the proletariat that will cause it to work in its own best interest.
The film’s setting is symbolic: located outside of Liège, Belgium, along the Meuse River, it is a region significant as the first site of European industrialization in the early nineteenth century, and since the 1960s, known for its high unemployment and labor unrest (Baum, 104). Thus from the outset, the directors, well known for decades of filmmaking addressing the lives of the working poor in French-speaking Wallonia, seem to want to connect this intimate story with the wider history of capitalism and issues of labor injustice (Baum, 103).
Sandra Bya, the film’s protagonist, a young woman married with two children, works for a small company that manufactures solar cells. At the beginning of the film, she is just returning to work after a leave of absence due to depression and a suicide attempt. It is hinted that her nervous strain may be the result of work-related stress and of the family’s ongoing financial difficulties. Thus, from the start, as a protagonist, she could be said to represent self-alienation resulting from capitalist exploitation. According to Marx, capitalism not only robs human labor of its “moral and physical conditions of development;” it may also be responsible for the worker’s early death. The capitalist sees excess population as a labor surplus (cheap labor), rather than as “generations of human beings stunted, short-lived, quickly replacing each other” (Marx, “Working Day,” 390).
“These laborers,” write Marx and Engels in their Manifesto, “who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market” ( ch.1). In the film, due to increased global production, and thus competition, the factory must cut costs. To save money, the owner M. Dupont plans to eliminate one position, Sandra’s. Her prolonged absence has demonstrated that they can do better financially without her and with only a slight increase in overtime for the others. However, to silence any potential objections by other employees, he decides to piece out the blame for her redundancy by allowing them to choose: Sandra may keep her job if they are all willing to forgo their annual 1,000 euro bonus. By this Mephistophelian strategy Dupont hopes to stifle any opposition and to set the workers against each other, all under the guise of a “democratic” vote. He counts on the success of this scheme, since he knows that his workers, many of whom are immigrants, live on the threshold of poverty and must work two or more jobs to support their families. As Marx and Engels state, “This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves” (Manifesto, ch. 1). If capitalism has one fear, it is the solidarity of its workforce. Thus Dupont seeks to divide in order to dominate. Any possible division or competition among his workers is exploited to prevent them from finding a common cause, and thus organizing resistance.
Sandra cannot afford to lose this employment. Her family has already lived in subsidized low-income housing, and she does not want to return there. As stated in the Communist Manifesto, “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer so far at an end that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” (ch.1). Thus, Sandra’s dilemma is a product of a bourgeois system of oppression, both inside and outside the workplace.
The dehumanization of laborers and their alienation, first from their work, then from one another, are important themes in the film. It is not surprising, for example, that the first vote is taken in Sandra’s absence. This way, her coworkers need not look into her eyes. In fact, every-thing has been arranged by the employer in the most aseptic manner to avoid contamination with human emotion. “It’s as if I don’t exist!” she complains. She does exist, however, and she arrives at the factory just in time to give a human face to the dilemma. The rest of the film follows Sandra as she visits the homes of her fellow employees, trying to sway their vote by proving to them that she does indeed have a face. She has an uphill battle since many of her coworkers refuse even to see her, while their spouses try to shame her for trying to take food out of their children’s mouths.
Although Sandra eventually loses her job (the final vote is an 8-to-8 tie), M. Dupont, impressed at how passionately she has campaigned to keep it, offers her another position, that of her coworker Alphonse, a poor Congolese immigrant who voted for her, but whose contract is about to expire. Through her ordeal, however, she has come to know her fellow employees and their families personally. Thus, for Sandra, Alphonse is no longer just a “contract,” as he is to Dupont; he has a face, a wife, and children, and as an immigrant, an economic plight even more dire than her own. From a Marxist viewpoint, Dupont is simply trying to force Sandra to accept that competition among employees is an economic reality, a “natural force” rather than a choice (Manifesto, ch. 1). Turning down the offer, she leaves the factory, now unemployed but with a new sense of self-worth and empowerment. Thus the film’s ending represents a kind of personal triumph of humanity over greed, of solidarity over anonymity, and of humanization over dehumanization. She has rediscovered her humanity and has a new, though developing class-consciousness.
According to classic Marxism, true art should reflect reality honestly, as well as be a means of raising class-consciousness, of transforming the audience and motivating them to action (Shaw). As a film Deux jours, une nuit approaches this goal. Unfortunately, as true as her con-version seems, Sandra is only one person. This focus on individual transformation rather than that of society as a whole continues to be a tendency of Western, and therefore capitalist, cinema. By contrast, many Marxist films of the early Soviet era shunned individualism and star-centered narratives in favor of a more collective approach: society is changed or transformed not by individuals, but by the collective action of anonymous people working in solidarity. One might cite as an example Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928), which uses no professional actors and depicts the Revolution as being accomplished by crowds of people.
Seen through a Marxist lens, Deux jours, une nuit gives a human face to the ongoing class struggle between labor and capital. As a proletarian exploited for her labor and alienated both from herself and her coworkers, Sandra is a mere commodity to her employer and therefore expendable. Yet faced with the loss of an income her family desperately needs, as well as the in-human and manipulative methods used by her employer to force her out, the normally passive protagonist grows angry and decides to fight back. Her efforts to get to know her coworkers, and to get to be known by them, put her on a sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding journey of developing solidarity and class-consciousness.
Baum, Christopher. “A Working-class Tale of Embodiment and Belonging: Two Days, One Night.” New Labor Forum, September 2015, pp. 102-04, http://journals.sagepub.com. libproxy.uncg.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/1095796015597452. Accessed 9 March 2017.
Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, performances by Marion Cotillard and Fabrizio Rongione, Cinéart, 2014.
Marx, Karl. “The Working Day (1867).” Critical Theory, edited by Robert Dale Parker, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 388-94.
——, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx/Engels Selected Works. Translated by Samuel Moore, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, 1969, http://www.marxists.org/ archive/ marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/. Accessed 9 March 2017.
Shaw, Dan. “Sergei Eisenstein.” Senses of Cinema, vol. 30, 2004, sensesofcinema.com/2004/ great-directors/eisenstein/. Accessed 9 March 2017.