The Existential Crisis of Work

Yesterday I attended a press screening for “Two Days, One Night”, the latest Dardenne brothers movie that plays on October 5th and 6th at the New York Film Festival and that should open eventually at better theaters everywhere. The Belgians are blessed to have such talents at their disposal while we are stuck with the Coens.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making films as a producing/directing/screenwriting team since 1978 but only gained an international following after the release of “The Promise” in 1996, a narrative film that included the same themes that have cropped up in much of their work, including their latest. These opening lines from my review of “The Promise” should give you an idea of what awaits you in a Dardenne film:

When we first meet Igor (Jeremie Renier), a teen-aged garage mechanic, he is stealing the wallet of an elderly woman whose car he is servicing. That act would seem to define the essential immorality of “La Promesse’s” central character.

Next we see him join his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) in a van filled with undocumented workers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, who have come to Belgium to escape economic oppression. What awaits them at Roger’s warren of ramshackle buildings is only a tiny step upward. As they stand forlornly outside the buildings–their new homes–they complain about the smell of shit. They will rent dismal rooms there and work for a pittance repairing the buildings. To make sure that they will bend to his will, Roger orders Igor to collect their passports.

The relationship between father and son is like the kind Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist. Roger, a Fagin like character, is both bullying and affectionate to his son. He bonds with him by tattooing his arm, using the crude sort of needle-pen and ink that you find in prisons. Although there is no explicit mention of Roger having a criminal past, he strikes you as a criminal type. He is constantly ripping off his workers and tenants and seems ready to use violence to achieve his aims at the drop of a hat. By all appearances, Igor is destined to turn out like his father.

One day the immigration police make a surprise raid and the workmen flee in all directions. In the ensuing panic, Hamidu (Rasmane Ouedraogo), who is from Burkina Faso, falls from a third floor scaffold. As he lies on the ground severely injured, he whispers to Igor that he must watch over his wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and their baby, who have just arrived with the latest batch of “illegals.” “Promise me,” he says. Before Igor has a chance to answer him, his father arrives and makes a decision that will divide him psychologically and morally from his son. If they bring Hamidu to the hospital, they will invite an investigation by the cops. So they put some planks over the injured man to keep him from view and allow him to die. After he dies, they drag him into a shed and pour concrete over his body.

In essence, the Dardennes deal with moral and existential crisis against a backdrop of class and ethnic conflict. Despite their obvious sympathy for workers in an increasingly class-divided Belgium, they would never be lumped with someone like Ken Loach whose films put the class conflict in the foreground, often in battles where the individual is subsumed into broader group dynamics. It would be hard to imagine the Dardennes ever making a film about the Spanish Civil War or the Irish Uprising of the 1920s, for the battlefield they are concerned with can be found in the  soul.


“Two Days, One Night” refers to the time frame in which Sandra (Marion Cotillard) must convince a majority of her sixteen fellow workers to forgo a bonus of 1000 Euro so that she will be able to continue working at Solwal, a small solar panel manufacturer that is part of the new alternative energy sector that is the leading edge of a Third Industrial Revolution if you believe the hype. For the poorly paid and unorganized workers at SolWal, it is much more like the situation Engels described in “Conditions of the Working Class in England”, an 1844 work that was the first to describe a life of insecurity and want. Although the SolWal workers live in pleasant looking apartments or detached houses and drive around in recent model cars, every one of them tells Sandra the same tale of woe. They are counting on the bonus to pay doctor bills, rent, or other necessities, not to buy a Missoni suit or Manolo Blahnik shoes.

But even if all are desperate to get the bonus, not all are willing to sell out Sandra, especially Timur, an immigrant worker who breaks down into tears when she approaches him at the soccer field on the first day of her odyssey. How could he not come to her aid when she told the boss that a welding error was hers rather than his when he was new to the job? If not for her, he would have been out on the street. You might conclude that the Dardennes were making a point about the greater willingness of immigrant workers to display solidarity but only within a broader context of how human beings relate to each other in personal and psychological terms. They are artists, not propagandists—or more accurately, artists and truth-tellers.

Although it has been many years since I saw “Diary of a French Country Priest”, I am convinced that some critics are correct in counting Robert Bresson as a major influence on the Dardennes. While Bresson’s worldview was Christian and the Dardennes Marxist, the drama almost exclusively revolves around the same kinds of moral choices. Making the right one leads to redemption, the wrong one to spiritual ruin. In the case of “Two Days, One Might”, Sandra makes such a choice. It would be most untoward of me to reveal whether she ends up on the side of the angels or the devil but that should whet your appetite sufficiently to put the film on your to-see list.

A few words are in order about the aesthetic choices made by the Dardennes. After all, they made a film not a leaflet. To start with, it is absent a film score. The background in all scenes, especially the transitions, is street noise and the like. The only time we hear music is when Sandra’s husband puts on the car radio and to great effect, much more so than the over-orchestrated Hollywood blockbuster that never shuts up.

The emphasis is on naturalism. There is never a single word that comes out of the characters’ mouths that is not what you would expect from a factory worker. The dialog is unembroidered and direct. The dramatic impact does not come from the words, but from the heartbreaking situation the characters find themselves in, one that hearkens back to Solomon asking two women vying for the same baby if they would be amenable to it being cut in half and each receiving a piece.

Finally, there is the cinematography. Even though they are not affiliated with Dogme 95, the Dardennes use natural light and hand-held cameras to convey a documentary-like authenticity, which is no surprise since this is how they got started.

When asked by interviewer Ariston Anderson for the website 99U why there is so much focus on work and labor in their work, brother Luc replied:

Well, probably because work is enabling a body to live. Our characters are people who used to work and then they lost their jobs, are unemployed now, and this has had a great impact on them. We were raised in Seraing, a big industrial city at the time, a little Detroit.

We manufactured lots of things that enabled the construction of the buildings of New York, with all this big steel equipment. We used to produce that in our city. So work labor has always had an important role in our cinema – the visible work, the manual work, it has played a role in our life.

I think one of the big wishes of the human kind is to transform things, to work on things to construct, to destroy, to sometimes construct again. And not only to look at the world, let’s say, passively. I think that’s the aim of humankind, being a man, a woman, is to change things. And cinema is about showing things that are changing.

I imagine that should be sufficient to convince CounterPunch readers that the Dardennes make films that speak to them like no others. Look for “Two Days, One Night” on the horizon.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.