PRINT October 2014


Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), 2014, digital video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and coworkers.

ANDRÉ BAZIN’S acerbic comparison of film festivals to religious Orders—the capitalization is his—with their analogous rituals, moral obligations, and ceremonies, remains apt six decades after he first made it, in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma. At Cannes, the festival largely the target of Bazin’s witty derision, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have, since the appearance of La promesse in the 1996 Directors’ Fortnight, joined the empyrean of directors who have won the Palme d’Or twice, and their films have taken on the aura of holy relics, so universally revered are their tales of crime and punishment, communion and redemption. (The word miracle figures frequently in critical writing on the Dardennes, whom J. Hoberman has called “worker-priests.”) Indeed, Bazin’s description of the festival’s cloistered environs—“a world where order, rigor, and necessity reign”—might also apply to the Dardennes’ own monastic corpus, which initially appears rough-hewn and artless but inevitably reveals an arduously carpentered precision like that demanded by the woodworking teacher in the directors’ study of vengeance and forgiveness Le fils (The Son, 2002). The Dardennes’ films often involve a set of tasks and ethical tests—The Son was originally called L’é preuve—but their latest, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014), which debuted at Cannes in May and will appear in the New York Film Festival this month, inadvertently presents a different kind of trial: a severe test of faith in the Dardennes’ vaunted social realism, celebrated by critics as ambiguous and uncompromising but which, on skeptical inspection, discloses considerable authorial contrivance and disregard for probability. As pandering and rigged for uplift as the mainstream films the Dardennes impugn, Two Days evinces the brothers’ taste for sudden reversals (of character or fortune) and hopeful endings, here once again pushed to an untenable extreme.

A quartet of tough little films whose frugal French titles (La promesse, Rosetta [1999], Le fils, L’enfant [2005]) betoken their unadorned means—Luc called their method “realism stripped down to the bone”—established the Dardennes’ reputation as innovative auteurs and standard-bearers of a revived humanism in cinema. Though the films were first described as naturalistic for their stark verism and dispossessed characters, the brothers rejected the term. “Naturalism,” Jean-Pierre told critic Jonathan Romney, “is something picturesque, like a historical TV miniseries—it’s when you pile on the details. We call our cinema ‘realism’ because it’s inspired by the everyday world we live in.” Set in the Dardennes’ hometown of Seraing, a desolate river port, and focused on young unfortunates, some criminal or verging on it, scrambling to survive in postindustrial Belgium, the four films may not “pile on the details,” but they do accumulate a great deal of incident, some of it implausible, some of it merely redundant. The Dardennes’ moral fables work to avoid the narrative and stylistic conventions of the fiction feature they unhappily made previous to the Seraing quartet, Je pense à vous (Thinking of You, 1992), with its star actors, pushy musical score, and crane shots, but they nevertheless rely on such standards of commercial cinema (and classic melodrama) as deathbed promises, fainting spells, car chases, imperiled children, coincidental encounters, and unexpected, inexplicable conversions. All four are variously crime or suspense films—The Son in particular recalls the work of master manipulator Claude Chabrol, so taut and teasing is its tale of suppressed revenge—that generate anxiety over the fates of their often iniquitous characters until a denouement delivers the at-risk protagonist from solitude into emotional communion (though his or her physical safety often remains doubtful). Dardenne devotees hesitate to call these propitious finales “happy endings,” but given the drastic happenings that precede them and appear to occlude all possibility of hope, the traditional epithet surely applies.

The sheer tactility of these films—every object and body has a palpable weight of being, and the setting exerts a powerful force despite its dreary anonymity—derives not only from the Dardennes’ intimate knowledge of Seraing but also from their roots in documentary filmmaking. Jean-Pierre aspired to be an actor, Luc studied philosophy, but in 1974, still in their twenties, they were moved by the dire economic circumstances of their region, as steel mills and other industries shut down, to form a communal video workshop, which they named Collectif Dérives, in homage to the Situationists. Inspired by the anarchist-theater writer-director Armand Gatti, the brothers developed a project more activist than aesthetic—“We didn’t think of ourselves as filmmakers,” they have said—and set about, in a mission pitched somewhere between the Lumière brothers’ actualités and the work of such collectives as Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, to record the lives of working-class locals and “show them on Sundays in a garage or a café.” Their aim was to foster social solidarity—“We tried to form bonds between people”—a utopian intention urgently apparent again in Two Days, One Night. Though the static camera and occasionally pessimistic tone of the documentaries contrast with the hectic, handheld style and ameliorative tenor of the Dardennes’ later fictions, these early films’ emphasis on the importance of work and vocation and the humiliations of unemployment, on journeys both actual and metaphoric, on those left behind by deindustrialization and the need for community and self-transformation, prepares for the cinema that made the brothers famous.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), 2014, digital video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Sandra (Marion Cotillard).

LA PROMESSE announced the reinvention of the Dardennes’ cinema. After the hard lessons learned during Je pense à vous—that using movie stars (Robin Renucci, Fabienne Babe), an all-controlling master cinematographer (Giorgos Arvanitis, Theo Angelopoulos’s famed DOP), and a veteran scriptwriter (Jean Gruault) prevented the kind of freedom, control, and collaboration the brothers desired—the Dardennes drew together a group of colleagues with whom they could remake their cinema, among them the theater actor Olivier Gourmet and the cinematographer Alain Marcoen. Influenced by the unyielding, materialist style of Robert Bresson, with its curt editing and radical ellipses, the brothers did away with nondiegetic music and employed unknown or nonprofessional actors chosen for their look and comportment—“first and foremost faces and bodies,” in the directors’ words. Unlike Bresson, who treated his actors as “models,” to be dispensed with after they had given up their beings to his cinema, the Dardennes, ironically, made art-house stars of their three main actors, Gourmet, Jérémie Renier, and Fabrizio Rongione, whom they have used repeatedly; Renier, a teenager in La promesse, has literally grown up before their cameras. Perhaps knowing that Bresson sometimes sadistically put his actors through countless, repetitive retakes, searching for the ideal neutrality of speech or gesture, the otherwise benevolent brothers similarly put their actors through laborious rehearsals and punishing retakes, most infamously during the shoot of Rosetta’s final calvary, during which the suicidal girl (Émilie Dequenne)—physically burdened and psychically tormented, as so many of Dardennes’ characters are—hauls the heavy propane tank she intends to use to asphyxiate herself.

Marcoen’s camerawork defined the Dardennes’ new, stripped-down aesthetic and brisk physicality with its use of unfiltered natural light and tight framing and nervous proximity to the actors, a handheld Arriflex fastened to their every action. The Dardennes’ rhythmic editing alternates frantic movement with calm observation, flurries of shots with extended takes, such as the five-minute continuous shot that ends Rosetta. Luc coined the term corps-caméra (body camera) for the way the cinematography crew learned to choreograph their motions to adhere tenaciously to the actors, and worked to develop ever-lighter equipment, eventually resorting to Super 16 to achieve the necessary freedom to invade the maelstroms of flailing limbs and bodily struggle that often erupt in the Dardennes’ cinema, or to relentlessly pursue the actors as they hurtle furiously through grim apartments and institutional hallways (the directors love the challenge of enclosed space), pick their way across traffic-choked periphery roads, or take refuge in riverine hiding places. The brothers do best at portraying their young characters’ furtive existences. Like animals, the Dardennes’ youths dig holes to hide evidence or treasure—the older protagonist of the later Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008) also secretes an envelope of cash in a crevice behind the dry-cleaning plant where she works—or stash their possessions (a pair of boots, a windbreaker) in a drainpipe or a bush. (In films in which security is crucial, keys, locks, and shackles figure persistently, and characters cling steadfastly to others or to objects in an attempt to fasten themselves to a place or person, to not drift into nothingness.)

Fanatically crafted to appear spontaneous (the Dardennes’ style has inevitably been compared to cinema verité), the films from La promesse through L’enfant examine the proddings of conscience in characters stunted by circumstance. Highly plotted despite their free-form appearance, the works in the quartet develop their tales of awakened consciousness in similar fashion: Igor (Renier) in La promesse, the eponymous Rosetta, Francis (Morgan Marinne) in The Son, and Bruno (Renier) in L’enfant, ranging in age from adolescent to barely adult, all commit grievous acts—theft, murder, betrayal, the trafficking of immigrants, the cover-up of a death, or the sale of a child—often with a blank-faced sense of impunity, and all are then redeemed by one they have offended. The Seraing cycle begins with a casual crime—Igor steals a wallet from an old woman whose car he is repairing (gratis, he adds graciously, before thieving her pension money)—which underscores the Dardennes’ debt to Dostoyevsky, both direct and mediated by the films of Bresson. The directors have stated that La promesse was inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, in particular an exchange between Markel and his mother about crime in which the son claims that everyone is guilty; the teenage mother in L’enfant, played by Déborah François, is named Sonia, no doubt after the virtuous prostitute in Crime and Punishment. (The redemptive denouement of L’enfant is clearly modeled on that of Bresson’s Pickpocket [1959], itself evidently based on Crime and Punishment, though Bresson denied the literary connection.)

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rosetta, 1999, 16 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne).

The influence of Dostoyevsky perhaps explains the presence in the Dardennes’ cinema of those inexplicably forgiving, (sometimes) resolutely good characters who, rebuffed, betrayed, or maltreated by another, persist in aiding or adoring the very one who has wounded them. Often characterized as moral or spiritual fables, which suggests a recourse to myth rather than the “documentary truth” it was the directors’ stated intention to capture, the Dardennes’ films frequently breach such realism to posit characters who can come off as the saints of Seraing. Not so Igor, the fourteen-year-old protagonist of La promesse, whose beloved father (Gourmet) is a slumlord who smuggles in and exploits illegal immigrants. A petty thief and growing expert in his father’s trafficking trade, Igor seems set to grow up just like papa—he wears a ring that matches his father’s—but his childish amorality and blind loyalty to his dad are suddenly challenged when an African worker suffers a mortal accident and makes the boy promise to take care of his wife and child as he lies dying. The Dardennes’ methodical chronicle of Igor’s moral dilemma, his awakening to ideas of compassion, connection, and obligation, becomes increasingly didactic, especially when the boy takes flight with Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), the Burkinabé widow of the fallen man. For artists so dedicated to authenticity that they would later engage an ornithological adviser for Lorna’s Silence, presumably to ensure the veracity of a snippet of birdsong, the lapses in La promesse are considerable. One wonders at many things: how Igor can turn so utterly against his sole, adored parent (the Dardennes characteristically elide all mention of Igor’s mother); how Assita, an illegal alien in constant fear of deportation, is able to produce her residency certificate at the hospital when her baby develops a potentially fatal fever; how an immigrant hospital charwoman happens along to pay the balance of Assita’s medical bill and then, even more unbelievably, offers her own identity papers so that Assita can escape to Italy. Too, the Dardennes’ brusque blackout ending, which would become a trademark of their work (as would the austere opening credits), here seems less open and ambiguous than evasive.

The abiding soul in Rosetta is also a crook: Riquet (Rongione), a young man who works at a waffle stand and makes a little extra by selling his own homemade gaufres from under the counter. He dotes on the eponymous teenager, a glowering girl trying to leave her squalid life in a trailer camp behind, to get a job, find a place to belong, and be “normal.” (Surprisingly, the Dardennes compare Rosetta to Kafka’s K in The Castle, one supposes because she, too, attempts to assure herself she exists; her name may give the film its title but, tellingly, it is not heard until the halfway mark.) Marcoen’s camera sticks to this unlikely heroine, holding on to her for dear life as she races and flails through her workplace in the opening sequence, fired for being late; as she sullenly takes to the trailer where her alcoholic mother exchanges sex for booze and rent; and as she secretly checks her trout-poaching traps in the waters where she will later almost drown, as will her would-be boyfriend. Her hesitation in saving Riquet as he flounders in the stream suggests that her intransigent will to survive—she wants his job—has shaded into cold-blooded uncaring. (For a moment, one thinks of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven. After a third character, young Steve in L’enfant, also nearly drowns—this time in the Meuse, the river that gives the Dardennes’ production company, Les Films du Fleuve, its name—and Sandra [Marion Cotillard] dreams her son is drowning in Two Days, One Night, one wonders whether any Belgian knows how to swim. Is it biographical fallacy to note that the brothers learned to fear the Meuse in childhood, after hearing about so many deaths and suicides in its polluted waters?)

Often compared to Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), Rosetta certainly recalls the master’s portrait of a provincial girl abused and abandoned, finally driven to suicide (in waters not unlike Rosetta’s), in its rigorous materialism, elliptical editing, and intensely physical soundscape (Rosetta’s animal panting, the insect-like buzzing of a moped), as well as in certain narrative details. Just as Mouchette loses a clog to the muck, Rosetta will lose her cherished boots in the stream after her mother pushes her in. “Mama! It’s all muddy! Mama! Mama!” is her rending cry as she thrashes in the water, reminding us that Rosetta is yet a helpless child despite her calculating tenacity. When Riquet, whom she has so callously betrayed, returns in the end—the film verges on gallows humor when Rosetta’s attempt to gas herself is thwarted by the propane tank’s running out—the motif of ascent and descent in the Dardennes’ cinema assumes a kind of spiritual import. (The pattern might be derived from the films of Roberto Rossellini, particularly his voyage trilogy—Stromboli [1950], Europe ’51 [1952], and Voyage in Italy [1954]—and Germany Year Zero [1948], the last of which the Dardennes acknowledge as a formative influence.) The Dardennes’ characters are forever rushing up or down stairs, clambering up walls and trees to escape or hide, or else falling to the floor or to the earth as they faint in despair or beg for forgiveness; in the final moment of Rosetta, the suicidal girl, obdurate in her isolation, is lifted up from the ground by Riquet, her ascent both an act of absolution and a return to life.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, L’enfant, 2005, 16 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Sonia (Déborah François).

The Dardennes’ next two films of testing and redemption end in tacit or tearful forgiveness. In The Son, a thickly bespectacled Gourmet plays a master woodworker who trains disadvantaged boys in his trade. (Tongue-and-groove exactitude and craftsmanship are central metaphors in the film, as if the Dardennes were commenting on their own meticulous methods.) Though informed, as are all of the brothers’ films, by the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and his emphasis on the “face-to-face” encounter with the Other that ordains an obligation not to kill, The Son extends the handheld visual style of the previous work by fastening on the back of Gourmet’s head. The film, which resembles a Chabrolian study in guilt, vengeance, and grace, tracks the teacher at neck-range after he recognizes a sullen teenager, Francis, who has been assigned to him as a student, and toys with the audience as the agitated adult spies on the child, going so far as to steal his keys from his locker so that he can inspect the boy’s room and lie in his unmade bed. (Spying is common in the Dardennes’ work; La promesse even features two unusual POV shots as Igor secretly surveys Assita.) Shifting from one mystery—what explains the teacher’s strange behavior toward the boy?—to another, The Son generates immense suspense as the carpenter and his student, one knowingly, the other not, act out a long-suppressed conflict. The boy, we soon learn, murdered the teacher’s son five years before, and as the indrawn carpenter loads his car with tarp and rope and takes the unheeding teenager to a secluded lumberyard, the scene is evidently set for revenge. That the materials one assumes are intended for the disposal of the boy’s corpse are instead transmogrified at film’s end into the tools of a shared trade that binds the two males in an act of clemency and portends the adult’s guardianship of his son’s killer reflects not Levinas’s theory of forgiveness—in this case, time can never be reversed nor the murderous act expiated—but the philosopher’s emphasis on opening new possibilities for the future of the offender.

So it is at the finish of L’enfant. Reflecting again the strong influence of Bresson, whose films the brothers first saw as students at the Catholic Saint-Martin school in Seraing, where a cinephilic priest showed art films in the chapel, L’enfant recalls Pickpocket in its amoral central character, its emphasis on the circulation of money, and its redemptive finale. The Dardennes’ open-faced Bruno, a kind of Fagin in a snappy hat, obviously has little in common with Bresson’s haughty isolate Michel, encased in his dark suit, but Bruno shares with the pickpocket a criminal career and a disregard for societal norms of family and work. (“Only fuckers work,” he scoffs, and though Michel might have put it more elegantly, he no doubt would agree.) Of any Dardenne protagonist, Bruno descends to the lowest depths, monetizing his newborn son, first as a prop for panhandling, then as a valuable item on the black market. He sells the baby for five thousand euros to a trafficker (a nasty Fabrizio Rongione) and, after being forced to buy the child back to avoid prosecution, vends its pram and Sonia’s jacket, the latter for one euro. (In Dardenne films, everything is given a price, sums obsessively mentioned, wads of bills and bags of coins repeatedly passed—in the first three minutes of Lorna’s Silence, four monetary figures are named—again revealing the influence of Bresson, whose bluntly titled L’argent [Money, 1983] has been a lodestar for the brothers’ cinema.)

“Our characters are alone, and their sense of guilt makes them even more alone—until finally they find a connection with another human being,” the Dardennes have said. If Riquet’s perseverant return to Rosetta strained credulity in this regard—she has ratted on him, stolen his job, and almost let him drown, yet he persists as her savior—the sudden conversion of Bruno at the end of L’enfant, especially after a protracted car chase that ends with his and his partner in crime Steve’s courting hypothermia in the freezing waters of the Meuse to avoid capture, strikes one as authorial imposition. The craven Bruno, hitherto shown as an impulsive, amoral prole-entrepreneur, his eyes always locked on the next opportunity to thieve and exploit, suddenly turns himself in to the police, and when Sonia, recalling the blond, angelic Jeanne of Pickpocket, visits him in prison, he breaks down sobbing and reaches out to her for union and absolution. If Bresson’s Michel takes a “strange path” to find Jeanne (and redemption), Bruno’s path is even more peculiar. In the determinist universe of Bresson, such journeys to grace revert to the director’s Catholic beliefs—some call it predestination—for final explication, but as much as the Dardennes share his religion, their hard-core materialism and self-prescribed realism prevent such mystical justification. Simply put, their characters’ conversions must be believable, as dictated by the director’s adherence to observed truth, or otherwise, as in L’enfant, appear compulsory.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Le fils (The Son), 2002, 16 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes. Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) and Francis (Morgan Marinne).

The burgeoning titles of the three Dardenne films that follow signal a departure for the directors. Perhaps fearing they had fallen into neorealist formula, the brothers extended their approach, filming an uncharacteristic sex scene (their cinema is otherwise resolutely unerotic), experimenting with nondiegetic music, using 35 mm on occasion, twice employing movie stars, and even decamping from Seraing for nearby Liège. That larger city provides the setting for Lorna’s Silence, which finally leaves the Dardennes’ world of children in its tale of an Albanian woman (Lorna, acted by Arta Dobroshi) who has married a local drug addict, Claudy (played with gaunt privation by Dardenne axiom Renier), to secure Belgian citizenship. The moral dilemma the Dardennes devise for Lorna is dire. She is, in turn, to be married to a Russian businessman (understood to be a mobster) seeking to obtain his legal residency, and she intends to buy a snack bar with her lover with the proceeds from that arrangement. (The film’s first, Bressonian, image is of a sheaf of euros being slipped under a bank teller’s window.) All that stands in Lorna’s way is Claudy, whom everyone expects to conveniently die from an overdose (with a little help), but who instead decides to go clean. Predictably, the essentially decent woman awakens to Claudy’s desperate need and begins to feel responsibility for the lost soul. When Claudy is finally dispatched, in a briefly disorienting ellipsis, Lorna gradually becomes unhinged by guilt, manifested as a hysterical pregnancy. (Luc had earlier described Rosetta’s abdominal cramps as “birthing pains that deliver no child.”) More classically shot than the Dardennes’ previous quartet, Lorna’s Silence also resorts to nondiegetic music at the very end—the Arietta from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32, played by Alfred Brendel, which serves as a lullaby for Lorna as she lies in a hut in the forest, murmuring to her nonexistent fetus.

Beethoven and Brendel return, employed more fully and more problematically, in Le gamin au vélo (The Kid with a Bike, 2011): The Dardennes apply the prayerlike woodwind section from the Adagio of the “Emperor” Concerto four times, as a benediction on the turbulent life of eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), another of their angry, implacable children. His small body tensed against the world, raw face taut with worry, Cyril is obsessed with finding his errant dad (Renier again), who has abandoned him to a group home. A spiritual brother to Rosetta, Cyril hurls his body through space as if wanting to escape his own skin, and when the boy is cornered in a clinic after running away, he clings as stubbornly to a stranger as Rosetta does to her bag of flour. The woman, a virtuous hairdresser named Samantha (played by a deglamorized Cécile de France), asks the boy only to hold her less tightly, establishing the bond that the rest of the film is spent testing. Samantha buys back the titular bike, which Cyril’s dad had sold before absconding, takes the boy under her roof on the weekends as a foster mother, and then helps him track down his wayward father. (When they finally find him, working at a restaurant called L’Acacia, their tapping on the windows and banging on the door evoke the many moments in Dardenne films when characters are shut out, helplessly pounding on portals.) The feral Cyril earns the nickname “Pitbull” from the young gangster who presses him into service, an incident that provides the film with a gratuitous coda about revenge and forgiveness. Cyril qualifies as one of the Dardennes’ most vivid and authentic creations, but the saintly Samantha simply beggars belief. Serenely enduring loss and injury despite the incessant trauma Cyril delivers her—he causes her to break up with her boyfriend and stabs her when she attempts to keep him home—Samantha smilingly accepts the surly, semiautistic gamin as her permanent ward just after she has learned that the delinquent faces charges for beating two innocent people over the head with a baseball bat to please the local drug dealer, and she pays the 1,700-euro fine for his depredations despite her modest means. Such unremitting selflessness outstrips the Dardennes’ usual measure of morality—taking responsibility for another—passing from the merely implausible to the utterly intolerable.

“A movie is not a court,” Jean-Pierre recently said about the Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night, though the film’s premise occasionally reminds one of 12 Angry Men (1957). Two Days opens with a classic Dardenne tactic: a phone call in which the audience is forced to infer the (usually drastic) news being imparted by the unheard party. In this case, Sandra, who has just ended a period of sick leave because of debilitating depression, learns that her coworkers at a small manufacturing plant for solar panels have voted to keep their annual bonuses of a thousand euros rather than to save her job—a stark choice they have been given by a boss downsizing in the face of Asian competition. Sandra’s husband, Manu (Rongione), persuades her to ask each of her colleagues to give up the bonus so she can retain her employment, and thus another of the Dardennes’ quest films is launched. Prone to hysterical muteness, wolfing Xanax, and weeping copiously, Sandra embarks on her weekend odyssey for survival, to visit or phone her various coworkers, whose individual situations and reactions to her request coalesce into a composite portrait of a society fragmenting under economic duress.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence), 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi).

Even if one accepts that Belgian labor laws would allow such a flagrant gambit, Two Days is contrived as a social-problem film, with a touch of Stanley Kramer in its didactic plotting. The Dardennes’ fiercely maintained realism here falters in matters large and small. The brothers are uncharacteristically vague about Manu’s employment; he seems to be kitchen help at a chain called Lunch Garden, but he has a lot of free time on his hands, and his and Sandra’s home appears a touch grand for two small incomes, much as it is a graduation from social housing. Several sequences appear false, forced, or egregious: an explosion of violence, when a young coworker attacks both Sandra and his own father and then races away (when the father comes to, having been knocked unconscious by his son’s blow, his first words are to assure Sandra that she can count on him to vote in her favor); the outburst of regretful tears from an ashamed colleague; a suicide attempt that lands Sandra in the hospital for an impossibly brief time, allowing her to carry on her crusade immediately afterward; and the precipitous feminist rebellion of a coworker who leaves her bullying husband when she suddenly learns to make her own decisions. (This patent awakening prompts a moment of manufactured joy, when Sandra and Manu, driving the woman to the safety of their home, ask her whether she likes rock music—what, not Bruckner?—before they crank up Van Morrison’s “Gloria” on the car radio and sing along.) Engineered to deliver an affirmation of class solidarity, Two Days concludes with a double reversal. Sandra’s job is lost, then can be saved, but only at the expense of that of a struggling young black colleague. Unlike the hardnosed Rosetta, however, Sandra refuses the deal and walks into a future of unemployment, bravely smiling as she tells her husband, “We put up a good fight. I’m happy.” But the fight in Two Days, One Night—even the title is a little off, given the actual time span of the film—is fixed. The Bazinian consecration of the real that has long been the vocation of the Dardennes’ cinema has breached its limits.

The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night will be screened at the New York Film Festival October 5 and 6.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.