Thursday, March 5, 2015

Two Solidarity Lessons, One Wrong

Living in the backwater of a medium-sized town in the Pacific northwest, I've just had a chance to see the latest Dardenne brothers film, “Two Days, One Night”.  While the reviews were generally appreciative after it came out last year, the overall view was that this is not one of the brothers’ best.  I agree with that.  (Their very first film, “La Promesse”, is a timeless masterpiece.)  The problem is not on the production side, which features the elegant naturalism that comes like breathing to the Dardennes, although I found Marion Cotillard a little too charismatic to fit the role of a working class woman recovering from depression.  (There can be a charisma to depression, but it’s not the same as hers.)  The problems with the film were at its core, its ethical structure.

First, very briefly, we should dispose of Tyler Cowen’s typically blinkered take on 2D1N.  Cowen says the film doesn't acknowledge marginal productivity theory.  It doesn't take seriously the point that Cotillard’s character can’t justify her employment by its contribution to the firm’s bottom line.  Instead of buttonholing her coworkers, she should be hitting the books, picking up skills to enhance her productivity.  Employment is not a realm of morality, just costs and revenues.  I realize that this is how the matter is portrayed in many (but not all) economics textbooks, and it’s not devoid of truth, but it is radically incomplete.  Productivity is not simply carted into the firm by workers like bricks in a wheelbarrow; it is the product of a production system, influenced by, among other things, the compensation and personnel strategy of the firm.  In good Kirznerian fashion, the solar firm in 2D1N discovers its workers productivity in the vicissitudes of worker comings and goings, as well as market competition (with the Chinese).  And what it discovers may well change in the future.

Now on to what the real problems are.  Spoiler alert: this film has a surprise twist at the end, which I’m going to reveal.  I think the merits of 2D1N don’t depend on suspense, so don’t panic, but consider yourself forewarned.

All Dardenne films are moral fables, and the moral bedrock is always the same, personal responsibility toward others, although it takes different forms.  In this film the issue is laid out immediately: Sandra (Cotillard) has lost her job at a photovoltaic fabricating plant.  She took time off to recover from depression, but her boss refused to take her back unless her coworkers agreed to forego their scheduled bonuses.  (A bonus in much of Europe is an expected, routine component of compensation.)  They had an election, but most of the workers voted to keep the bonus and not have Sandra rehired.  In the first few frames, Sandra and her closest colleague manage to convince the boss to hold another ballot on the grounds that a supervisor had tainted the process.  Now Sandra has two days and one night to convince a majority of the staff (there are 16 employees) to support her by giving up part of their pay.  The film follows her through the emotionally exhausting process of visiting them at their homes, one by one, and trying to convince them to make this sacrifice on her behalf.

On every level, the film takes Sandra’s position.  Using long takes and intense closeups, it shows you how everything unfolds from her point of view.  But more to the point, the film embraces Sandra’s cause as an ethical proposition, that solidarity means agreeing to a pay cut in order to allow an extra worker to be hired.  But is it so clear?  Does doing the right thing necessarily mean working for less in order keep everyone on board?  If there were a single company in all of Belgium, and not having a job in it meant destitution, then yes, that’s what solidarity requires.  But Belgium is a market economy with many firms, and the relevant question is whether Sandra’s claim to this specific job is so great as to justify pay cuts for every other employee.  That is the logic of givebacks, which in my book is not the epitome of solidarity.  It is ironic that in this film the Dardennes, champions of the working class, implicitly accept the demand that European countries “reform” their labor relations systems to shift bargaining to the establishment level in the interest of wage flexibility.  You can agree with that if you want, but don’t call it worker solidarity.  I’m not turning the film upside-down, just saying that its ethical core is problematic, and that viewing the problem from Sandra’s point of view is unconvincing.  A different film, using a different technique, could have presented this ethical conundrum in a less manipulative fashion.

Now for the surprise twist.  All along, Sandra has been asking her colleagues to take a personal hit on her behalf.  In a dramatic scene, a fixed term employee, Alphonse, describes his fear that if he takes an unpopular position his contract won’t be renewed.  Ultimately, and bravely, he decides to vote for Sandra and against the bonus.  Sandra narrowly loses the second vote, but she is summoned to the boss’s office, where she is told that she demonstrated her merit by her hard fight, and that she would be given her old job back when the contract of the term employee is over.  Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot: it is Sandra who is placed in the ethical position of having to sacrifice in the interest of another worker.  She sees this immediately, and, while not giving any speeches about it, demonstrates to the viewer that she will not undercut a vulnerable coworker who came to her defense.  The final frames even suggest that, by taking a stand and making her own choices, Sandra can face unemployment with the emotional resources that she lacked when she was simply a victim.

I think that second lesson, given the assumptions embedded in the first one (taking a pay cut to keep a coworker on the job is virtuous), is correct and important.  If you want to think of this film strictly in didactic terms, that insight is the value added.  Here, oddly, the problem is not conceptual but artistic.  The final sequence—the boss’s offer, Sandra’s refusal—take place in just a few moments and the viewer isn’t given any cue that highlights its importance.  In a Hollywood film it would go like this: when the boss makes his offer, Sandra breaks down in tears and thanks him from the bottom of her soul.  She has a big smile on her face as she leaves his office, but then, looking through a window, she sees Alphonse hard at work, honest and dedicated.  There is a closeup of her face as second thoughts begin to emerge.  Then she is flooded by enlightenment, turns around, and runs at top speed back to the boss.  She gives a dramatic speech, accompanied by soaring music, in which she says that she fought not only for herself but for a principle, and now, asked to choose between her own self-interest and a higher morality, she cannot go back to work at Alphonse’s expense.  She strides back down the hall with new dignity, more erect, more knowing.  In the final frames she asks her husband if he would help her search for new work as he helped her track down her former coworkers.  He smiles broadly at her, realizing she is now healed.  She smiles back at him.  You know in this moment that their four-month sex drought (I didn't mention that before, did I?) is going to end tonight.

That’s not the Dardenne way.  They don’t do melodrama, stark emotional cues or musical scores.  (The only music you hear in their films is the music the characters hear.)  It’s all life-as-it-is-lived.  In this case, however, the result is that the most important ethical and emotional moment in the film carries little weight.  Maybe just a touch of Hollywood was in order.

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