Specializing in Ordinary Ordeals

Jean-Pierre Dardenne, left, and Luc Dardenne.

Telluride, Colo. — Wage stagnation, income inequality, the living wage, the decline of the middle class: These issues may be pushed out of the headlines by more dramatic crises, but they continue to preoccupy political discourse, especially in the United States and Europe. At the movies, economic injustice is occasionally grist for allegory — as in Bong Joon-Ho’s “Snowpiercer,” the action-movie sleeper of the summer — and more frequently an axiom of realism. And for the past 15 years or so, cinematic realism has been virtually synonymous with the name Dardenne, as in Jean-Pierre and Luc, Belgian brothers, now 63 and 60, who have twice won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.

“Two Days, One Night,” their latest film, finds global significance in a slender, almost anecdotal story about a worker’s ordeal. The same might be said of any of the brothers’ other major fictional features, which cast a naturalistic eye on the daily lives of poor and somewhat less poor residents of Belgium’s French-speaking industrial heartland. The Dardennes are faithful chroniclers of a European working class in crisis, and their austere methods have influenced filmmakers from Argentina to Kazakhstan — wherever problems of labor, subsistence and economic survival seem especially acute. Which is just about everywhere, nowadays.

Since the appearance of “La Promesse” in 1996, the brothers have been the pre-eminent heirs of a battered and durable neorealist tradition, and they have become known — and in the world of international film festivals, celebrated — for consistency of style and theme. They shoot their films in and around Seraing, where they grew up, and cast local actors, professional and otherwise, along with an occasional French or Belgian movie star. (Marion Cotillard, with worried eyes and weary posture and without a trace of actorly vanity, has the lead in “Two Days.”) There is a typical, often-imitated Dardennes shot: a hand-held camera following behind a character, whose point of view is both emphasized and obscured by the framing. And also a typical Dardennes protagonist: a person in difficult circumstances who is forced to make a costly, morally wrenching choice.

In a recent interview here — a stop on the festival itinerary that has taken “Two Days” from Cannes to Toronto to New York, where it screens Sunday in advance of a Christmas commercial release in the United States — Luc Dardenne, on this occasion the more talkative brother, summed up the existential theme of their work. “It may be too simple to put it this way,” he said, “but all of our films recount how a person emerges from his or her solitude, and unites with another, or several others. ‘The Son,’ ‘Rosetta,’ ‘La Promesse’: One way or another, we show how someone encounters somebody else, and how this encounter is transformative, how it resolves the isolation that had kept the main character outside of society, outside the community.”

The accuracy of this assessment is plain enough. Even when the plots take a grim turn, toward unemployment, prison or violence, they never let go of the possibility of human connection, of the recognition that affirms an individual’s membership in some larger collective identity: a couple, a family, a team, a class, the human species.

Though Luc described this idea in abstract, almost philosophical terms, it has a clear ethical and even political dimension. In “La Promesse,” a boy is torn between loyalty to his father, who runs a construction company that employs mainly undocumented immigrants, and the knowledge that their working conditions are dangerous and illegal. The sense of responsibility that weighs so heavily on him, and that forces him to choose between two forms of betrayal, arises from a larger injustice.

In “The Son” (2003), perhaps the most intimate of the Dardennes’ movies, a carpentry teacher finds himself serving as mentor to the young man responsible for the death of his son, and confounded by warring impulses of revenge and forgiveness. But matters of class and labor hover over that tale as well. The grieving father (played by Olivier Gourmet, a polestar of the Dardenne universe) is grounded in the dignity of work and the discipline of craft. The nihilism he sees in the sullen teenage killer is a symptom of the loss of such values, a loss that haunts nearly every frame the Dardennes have shot.

It afflicts the reckless protagonist of “L’Enfant” (2005), a shallow young charmer who blithely drifts from petty crime to outright monstrosity, selling his newborn baby and buying matching leather jackets for himself and his girlfriend with some of the proceeds. If he can’t find honest work, he can at least experience some of the pleasures of consumerism, and giving up his firstborn seems at first like a reasonable enough exchange.

The title character of “Rosetta” (1999), the first Dardenne brothers film to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes (“L’Enfant” was the second) is a 17-year-old girl at war with everything in the universe, including herself, her alcoholic mother, a factory manager and the short-order cook who may be her only friend. Rosetta’s antisocial and self-destructive behavior expresses a desire that is at once primal and practical, banal and profound. What she wants, above all, is to work, and to secure the kind of social identity and human connection that a job can provide.

In “Two Days, One Night,” the need for work is also what motivates Sandra, who is in many ways Rosetta’s opposite: a soft-spoken woman living with her husband and two children in a tidy, modern townhouse. But Sandra’s anguish, manifested as depression rather than rage, is every bit as raw as Rosetta’s, and the stakes of her struggle are if anything even higher. Laid off after returning from a medical leave, she must persuade her co-workers to give up their bonuses to cover her salary. The film’s title and its against-the-clock structure come from conditions dictated by her boss. On Monday morning, the 16 members of Sandra’s team will vote on her fate, and she has the weekend to persuade them to sacrifice their interests — 1,000 euros they have each sweated to earn and desperately need — for her well-being.

“She is a person we had thought about for 10 years,” Jean-Pierre said. The idea of a worker forced to bargain for her job not with management but with her fellow employees was a potent metaphor for the state of modern capitalism to begin with, but in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and its harsh, prolonged aftermath it took on particular relevance.

“In 2010, 2012 we really began to see the social and economic consequences,” Luc said, “and that was what brought us back to this scenario, and convinced us to make the film. There were a lot more people out of work in our area, and not only in our area.” Anecdotes that mirrored Sandra’s predicament became more common: Luc noted that in the months since the French premiere of “Two Days” in the spring, three companies in Belgium and France had subjected their employees to similar choices.

“It’s true that we pay attention to what the stories might say about social relations in Western countries,” Jean-Pierre said, referring to their work in general. “But it’s always our intention to make films about the characters in their situations, and not to use them as mouthpieces for a particular position. If there is a political point of view in the films, it has to arise from the action, from the circumstances.”

Sandra’s experiences are a perfect illustration of this method. The viewer accompanies her as she knocks on doors and makes anxious phone calls in her effort to speak with every one of her colleagues. For her and for us, the repetitiveness of these encounters is grueling and uncomfortable, but it is also crucial to the film’s emotional power. Each meeting is unique, because each person Sandra talks to has particular responses and concerns. One man, in the midst of a pickup soccer game, bursts into tears. Another threatens Sandra with violence. Some have trouble meeting her eyes; others are forthright in their support or refusal. A few decline to commit one way or another. But as Jean-Pierre put it: “Each one is as important as Sandra. There are no secondary roles.”

There is also no judgment, either from Sandra or the filmmakers. What makes her ordeal especially painful is her strong feeling that she has no right to ask her colleagues to give up their hard-won money on her behalf. Why should her needs trump theirs? But of course, this is a profoundly political question. “The subject of the film is solidarity,” Luc said.

In the history of labor, in Europe and other Western countries, that word has associations that stretch from the organizers and agitators of the Industrial Workers of the World in the American West during World War I to the Gdansk shipyard workers in the waning years of the Cold War. That ideal, in the view of the Dardennes, has been eroded by an ethic of competition and selfishness.

“We wanted to show something of the state we’re in now,” Luc said. “People are intensely individualistic. They all have money problems. They are all in debt: paying for the house, the car, the kids. Everyone is in a state of insecurity, of fear. We wanted to show that, how people are in a precarious state. In the movie, they are almost all working more than one job, not to get rich, but to have enough money to pay for what they need.”

Unlike some Dardennes heroes and heroines, Sandra and her family — and most of the families she visits — live in at least modest comfort. In this country, they would be called middle class: They have some nice things, enough food, a television, a car. Sandra parks in private driveways and makes her pitch in tidy backyards. But the pathos of the film comes from the perceived fragility of this standard of living, the terror that unemployment will mean not only lost income, but also the more cataclysmic loss of newly won social status, of normalcy.

That is an anxiety that might hit home especially hard in America, where individualism is more deeply rooted and where the fall from the middle class is less cushioned by social benefits and workplace protections. The setting of “Two Days, One Night” may be specifically Belgian, but it is easy to imagine similar stories being told here about fast-food and retail workers, baristas and sales associates, house painters and middle managers who feel the ground shifting under them and their hold on the American dream slipping.

They are part of a larger narrative: a complex tale of globalization and the expansion of the consumer economy, of the decline of the old left and the rise of neoliberalism. It’s a story the Dardennes have been telling, chapter by chapter, for a long time. In an early journal entry published in his book, “Au Dos de Nos Images,”(“On the Backs of Our Images”) Luc Dardenne set out its moral: “The worker has become a solitary person, the member of a species on the road to extinction,” he wrote, “Will this disappearance leave behind a legacy? What will it be?”

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