DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

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Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.

DO ANKHEN BARAH HAATH / Two Eyes, Twelve Hands (Dir. V Shantaram, 1957, India) – Reformist Metonymy

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Do Ankhen Barah Haath is one of director V Shantaram’s best known works. It has been labelled a classic yet in terms of popular Indian film discourse the film is rarely discussed unlike similarly revered Hindi films such as Mother India or Mughal E Azam. Perhaps this has to do with the film’s somewhat darker thematic explorations of social reform, masculinity and capitalism. It is a film that seems at home in the company of neo realist works such as Do Bigha Zamin, manifesting a reformist ideology shaped by Nehruvian politics. The story of reform is refracted through the relationship between a prison/police warden and six convicted murderers. Adinath, the warden, is played by director Shantaram and takes it upon himself to prove the prisoners/murderers can only be reformed by humanising them within a communal context. At first, the six men are compelled to leave the farm which they have been brought to by Adinath. In many ways, reformation is posited as a social experiment, criticised by Adinath’s superior as both futile and detrimental to society. Adinath’s persistency leads to success and the men forge together to transform the once barren farmland into a socialist enterprise that results in them selling crops to a local market as an honest livelihood. One of the clearest ways in which to read Shantaram’s film is as a contemporary parable or fable since the ideological conflict between oppression and reform is a universal one, transcending cultural barriers and offering a cathartic narrative that frames liberation against a vein of martyrdom familiar to us from Italian neo realist cinema.

Starting in the 1920s and finishing in the 1980s, as a pioneer, Shantaram worked across the spectrum of Indian cinema and his development as a director runs parallel with the film industry’s transition from silent to sound cinema. What his films share with directors from a similar era such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt is a fondness for expressionist imagery that recalls both German expressionism and film noir in equal measures. Ideologically, it is the presence of Champa, the sole female character in the film, a toy seller (played by Sandhya – Shantaram’s wife) who at first is represented as a disruptive force only to become a transformative figure, salvaging the dignity of the men and facilitating a premature gender equilibrium. The final third hints at a rebuke of free market capitalism since the men who take their crops to sell at the local market keep their prices at an affordable rate thus invoking the ire of the greedy merchants. The merchants feel threatened by the men and it is not long before they sabotage the farm and effectively neutralise any attempts to destabilise their economic hegemony. The ending in itself with the two eyes of the martyred Adinath looking down at the six reformed men is sentimentally manipulative but the melodramatic touch of Adinath’s imaginary tears turning into drops of rain becomes an indelibly humanist metonym for what is a noble cinematic enterprise.