Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, often referred to as the Dardenne Brothers, are well known for their modern neorealist films of the working class, especially the lives of those who live on the margins of Belgium society. While many films depicting the working class often romanticise suffering as a means to squeeze out every ounce of our pity, the plots from the duo can be sharply defined by their refusal to patronise their characters. Instead, what their films do is give a sense of dignity to a section of society that is never given any, through focusing on the brutal circumstances that their protagonists are in. Often, these circumstances are a result of the exploitative mechanisms of capitalism, leaving their characters forced to make morally grey decisions, scrambling to do anything to survive. Yet, in these films, the camera never assigns blame to the people, but rather to the environment which made them this way.
In this piece, I aim to offer an analysis of how the Dardenne Brothers critique the capitalist society which thrives on the absence of human dignity and connection in two of their films: Rosetta (1999) and Two Days, One Night (2014). It can be argued that both films make two directly opposing points with their contrasting women protagonists; the former exposing the harrowing conditions one can be driven to inhabit as a result of an internalisation of capitalistic notions of human worth and value, and the latter revealing to us how sometimes solidarity amongst the working class can be our only saving grace.
In Rosetta (1999), the film opens with a messy, handheld long take of Rosetta (Èmilie Dequenne) escaping from her employer who has just fired her. She writhes in agony, pushes people out of her way, begging to stay. It is this intense desperation that characterises her behaviour for the rest of the film, where she runs from shop to shop attempting to find paid work in hopes of leaving the vicious cycle of poverty where she is the sole breadwinner and caretaker all at once. She rejects free gifts and offers of help, believing in a warped version of dignity that is tied to work – that human worth is tied to one’s ability to be of productive value and that one has to earn their worth. Therefore, it can be argued that for Rosetta, work does more than pay the bills. In the exploitative system of capitalism that Rosetta is subjected to, in the tiny trailer she lives in the woods alienated from society, paid work offers an entry into what she perceives as normalcy, which in turn translates into what society perceives as dignity. For example, during what is considered one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Rosetta chants herself to sleep in a cramped corner of a room that is not her own: “You found a job. I found a job. You have a normal life. I have a normal life.”
What should devastate us is the split between “you” and “I” in her prayer, which highlights a heavy distance between Rosetta and the sentiment she preaches. It underscores a recognition that none of this – living in a suffocating trailer in the woods, being a full-time caretaker to her alcoholic mother, having zero income – is normal. Nothing about her life is normal and Rosetta knows it. All she has is the self-deceptive belief that a low-wage job grants her normalcy because there is nothing left in her life that actually is. There is an acute self-awareness that if she does not hold onto this belief, life becomes an increasingly unliveable prison.
In contrast to the forced isolation of the worker from society in Rosetta, Two Days, One Night (2014) gives us a more hopeful outlook on the beauty of solidarity and interdependence amongst the working class. Sandra (Marion Cotillard), has two days and one night to convince her colleagues to choose between allowing her to stay and keeping their bonus salaries. Most of her colleagues have already chosen the bonus, having been lied to by their boss that it was either letting Sandra stay or losing their jobs. The premise of this ultimatum foregrounds the insidious ways capitalism invisibly wage war amongst the poor, causing them to pin the blame upon each other instead of seeing the larger picture: that they are all entrapped and exploited by the same system. This dog-fight is a manufactured lie, in which neither Sandra nor her colleagues are to blame for their tenuous employment status.
Hence, in this film, the Dardenne Brothers show us that we do not have to buy into this absurd lie. We may not have a choice in changing the system or even escaping it, but what we can choose to do is to lift others like us up. It is an act of resistance. It is dignity which exists outside of the system. When Sandra goes door-to-door to ask for her colleague’s votes, she does not do it in a manner that vilifies them for choosing their bonus instead of her job. We learn that some of them have children to send to school, some are barely paying the bills and some just want to refurbish their homes. Regardless of their reasons, Sandra makes it explicitly clear that while she does hope they vote for her, she understands their decision not to. There is no blame, only a graceful honesty that underscores an understanding that this situation is nobody’s fault other than those who ruthlessly disregard empathy for profit. The camera works expertly as well during these scenes, often subtly dividing Sandra and her colleague by a vertical axis in the background, showing us that they each have different situations and lives which necessitates their choice to keep the bonus. In the final scene, Sandra is short of one vote but her boss offers another brutal ultimatum: all of her colleagues can get their bonuses while she stays employed, but another person’s contract would have to be terminated. The person in this scenario is a colleague who has chosen to vote for Sandra despite being coerced by the management not to do so, threatened with the prospect of unemployment. In a lasting act of defiance, Sandra firmly tells her boss: “You’re heartless.”
She refuses the offer and in the process, refuses to subject another person to what she had gone through. She walks away from the competition. Here we see a shift in the power dynamics – she refuses to partake in this manufactured war and play into the sick game that has been forced upon her. While losing her job may seem as a form of defeat, her choice speaks of a raw strength and compassion sorely lacking as a result of a profit-driven world we live in today. Furthermore, by allowing the main plot to revolve around her seeming powerlessness, this final affirmative decision shines through with a golden certainty that sometimes, humanity can be good. Our graceless system may not change for decades to come, but how we treat people can. We can be kind. Where and when possible, we can choose to be like Sandra.
Both Rosetta and Sandra are similar in the ways that they are both struggling to survive in a heartless system, navigating an entrapment that has no exit in sight. The former has no choice but to partake in the competition while the latter chooses to walk away from it because she has this one choice, however small it is and however big the cost. Yet, in these films, neither are to blame for their circumstances and choices. The Dardenne Brothers have chosen to shift the blame away from the people and onto the system that has made their lives impossible to lead, highlighting how the working class rarely has a choice in the betterment of their lives. Instead, they are consistently subjected to public humiliation, mindless competition and alienating loneliness. The capitalist system is brutal, perverse and cold. The people trapped in it are simply trying to make the best out of it, and deserve our empathy instead of our apathetic indifference.