Don’t Eat Your Neighbors

© Sundance Selects

The cinephile is a doomsday prepper, and Netflix is a military surplus store.

Let me explain.

When the craziness of our age boils over and the temptation to despair creeps in, it is a natural (and good) instinct to seek help from stories. Not as a distraction, per se, but as a much-needed revelation, an illustrated reminder about who we really are and what really matters. A survival kit, so to speak: narrative packed with bandages and balms for healing, a compass for guidance in a seemingly unnavigable wilderness.

We count on sacred texts to buoy our sinking hearts. We look at screens as smelling salts to snap us out of it. We invoke inspirational mythologies to point our attention in the direction of things that last.

So if we’re assembling an emergency stash of movies that’ll keep us sane in the wild, if we’re customizing a cinematic bug-out bag with enough nourishment to sustain in us a virtuous vision of the good life, then the Dardennes brothers’ masterpiece Two Days, One Night ought to be on our packing list.

We’re so far from one another. As we scramble about this hyper-modern hellscape, increasingly atomized and isolated and alienated, we don’t know our neighbors, let alone their needs. We’ve learned to prize making good deals over and against living in solidarity with those around us. Two Days, One Night gives a snapshot of how ugly a cultural sickness that is and, in turn, exhibits the beauty of balking at it, of refusing to comply with the pervasive self-over-neighbor impulse—even (especially!) when it’s inconvenient to do so. And the film doesn’t present us this picture while wagging its finger, but by activating an understanding of oh yes THIS is what it means to be human, wooing us with a heroine who foolishly, subversively—like The Tree of Life’s prey-sparing dino betraying its lizard brain à la The Way of Grace—refuses to eat her neighbors even though she’s hungry.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard, in one of her two perfect 2014 performances) has a factory job assembling solar panels, but spent the past few months on medical leave for depression. She has a working husband and two kids, and they need every cent they earn. That’s why it’s a gut punch when Sandra, about to return to work after her absence, learns that her co-workers voted to keep their long-overdue bonuses at the cost of eliminating her position. The vote, done by a show of hands, was 13-3. She’s out of a job. Her colleagues retain their bonuses. There just isn’t enough money for both: “I have nothing against you, but I have to deal with competition from Asian solar panels,” Sandra’s boss explains.

Sandra convinces him to hold a revote, this time by secret ballot (on suspicion of voter intimidation perpetrated by the factory’s foreman the first time around). But she only has one weekend to visit the co-workers who voted against her and convince enough of them to reverse their decisions. Meanwhile, Sandra is still in the throes of her depression, continually flogged by negative self-talk: “I’m a mess,” “I don’t exist,” “My boss is right. I’m not up for it.” She has to cast aside her looping shame, mustering strength to not only get out of bed but to track down over a dozen co-workers and convince them to override their me-first logic.

A not insignificant portion of the film is devoted to Sandra simply trying to locate her co-workers in the most tedious, sad-because-it’s-so-normal manner possible. She flips through phone books and dials numbers, zig-zags the city in buses and cars, knocks on doors and buzzes apartment intercoms, trying to find her coworkers outside of work. It’s a challenge hunting each down. To wit: we’re so far from one another.

Most of Sandra’s co-workers aren’t classically bad or greedy people; they work side hustles and second jobs just to pay the bills. Some even seem genuinely troubled by the position Sandra is in, but can anyone really expect them to refuse their bonuses and risk their own welfare? They have their own problems to deal with. “I didn’t vote against you, I voted for my bonus,” one explains. Why should the whole of the group suffer for one? After all, they didn’t create this trolley problem; the boss did. (The boss: I didn’t create this dilemma; the competition did.) And we probably kinda shrug along with them, because the logic of the age makes too much sense. Even Sandra succumbs: “They want their bonus. It’s normal,” she sighs, defending her co-workers’ voting record. “No it’s not,” Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) suggests to her—and us.

Trying to secure enough votes, Sandra visits her co-worker Timur at the community soccer pitch. She asks for his vote, and Timur is immediately overcome with tears of remorse. He confesses he previously voted for his bonus, and emphatically apologizes for doing so. And then he recounts a story. In Timur’s first few days at the factory, he accidentally broke a product on the assembly line. When the foreman inquired, Sandra stepped in and took blame for the fault. The foreman snapped at her apparent carelessness: “A fine example to set for the new guy!” In an ironic twist, it actually was. Sandra’s self-sacrifice let Timur save face while it almost assuredly put her on a short leash. Sandra’s act of compassion inspired Timur, now with a fresh opportunity to follow her example. He assures Sandra that she will have his vote this time around.

The final co-worker Sandra visits is Alphonse. He’s on a fixed-term contract at the factory, and he’s counting on it getting renewed. He voted against Sandra, he admits, not because of the money, but because the foreman warned that a vote against the bonus would certainly result in discord with the rest of the crew. This is despite, Alphonse confesses, his better judgment: “It’s what God tells me to do. I have to help my neighbor. But I’m scared of the others.” Sandra sees that Alphonse wants to help, but his fear might remain an obstacle.

In the end, a secret ballot is held. The votes are cast. The tally is 8-8. Without a majority, the staff retains their bonuses, and Sandra is officially out of a job. But before she leaves the building, her boss gives an unexpected offer: He proposes to re-hire her in a couple of months; once another employee’s fixed-term contract is up, he won’t renew it, but will bring Sandra back instead.

Here is Sandra’s chance. She can reclaim what’s rightfully hers.

But she remembers Alphonse. Sandra rejects the offer and leaves.

Striding across the screen, she resolves to find work elsewhere, and delivers the film’s final line: “I’m happy.”

What is it about Sandra’s story that holds the key to our survival? She alerts us to the deeper truth that happiness, properly understood, is bound up with being human, and this requires observing the humanity in others. This means that leaving others behind in order to get ahead isn’t really living. This means that when our appetites are rightly ordered, we will risk being interrupted and inconvenienced and eaten. To adequately take heart amid the craziness of this world, we need to first refuse to play by its logic. When shit hits the fan, we need to tilt the whole frame upside down, lean in closer to the humans next door (as well as the humans on the other side of the tracks), and thicken the bond between us. We need to be neighbors, madly, naively, foolishly so.