Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Two Days, One Night and the
BBFC's spoiler-happy guidelines

*** WARNING ***
Contains spoilers for Two Days, One Night

I went to see the Dardennes brothers' tremendous Two Days, One Night with the great unwashed of the Curzon Soho last week. It's riveting stuff: as a woman swallowing every last morsel of pride in order to beg her colleagues for her job back, Marion Cotillard makes you work as hard as she does for results.

As a foreign language arthouse film, Two Days, One Night arguably attracts a certain type of audience: one who, at the very least, has gone to the trouble of finding out the thrust of the story in order to decide whether or not to see it. So it's fair to suggest that most people watching the film in a cinema know that it concerns Cotillard's character, Sandra, struggling to get her job back by pleading with her workmates to convince them to forego their bonus.

What, then, does that audience think when the words "suicide attempt" appear on screen as a warning about the film's content, alongside the BBFC's '15' certificate, mere seconds before it starts? I can't speak for everyone, but my own thoughts went something along the lines of: "Oh right, so at some point things will get so bad that Sandra will try to kill herself. I'll just sit here with that information stored away, waiting for it to happen, shall I? THANKS A RUDDY BUNCH, THE BBFC."
Also it turns out her husband was dead all along

Maybe I'm overreacting, but to me this seems like a counterproductive measure by our friends at 3 Soho Square. Of course it's important to protect sensitive viewers from potentially upsetting material, but is the 15 certificate alone not enough to warn audiences of "adult themes"?

The BBFC's new Classification Guidelines, which are the result of a lengthy public consultation, have the following to say about suicide:
"Portrayals of potentially dangerous behaviour (especially relating to hanging, suicide and self-harm) which children and young people may potentially copy, will be cut if a higher classification is not appropriate."
In the case of Two Days, One Night, that higher classification was deemed appropriate and the film was passed uncut with a 15 certificate. Some time ago the BBFC introduced BBFCinsight, a feature on their website which goes into detail about why a given film was passed with a given certificate, and so if you want to know precisely why Two Days, One Night is a 15 you can find out here. Now I have no problem with this, and in fact have used BBFCinsight a few times to answer the concerns of friends who want to take their kids to the cinema but don't want them to be subjected to, for example, domestic abuse, animal cruelty or Shia Labeouf.

But with that information available online, is it also necessary to summarise it in cinemas on the black card when it reveals crucial plot details? The "suicide attempt" warning also appears in the summary at the top of Two Days, One Night's BBFC page, making it even easier to have your experience spoiled:
I contacted the BBFC to question the wisdom of their decision, and was told that
"the specific details of the event - i.e. exactly who the suicide attempt concerned, where it occurred in the film and other details - are not mentioned."
But let's be honest: an audience who knows what Two Days, One Night is about doesn't have to make a herculean leap of reasoning to infer that it's probably the character undergoing an emotionally turbulent 48 hours who will, at some point, give up in the most final way. What's more, the suicide isn't attempted for a good hour or so, so no matter how successful or not Sandra is in persuading her colleagues to give up their bonus so she can earn a living, we spend two-thirds of the running time waiting for her to hit rock bottom. The emotional impact of the journey we're on, which is at the heart of the film's success, is lessened by the knowledge of what's to come.

The BBFC are very keen to trumpet BBFCinsight, and even commissioned this cheery video to promote it:

You'll notice the video posits that we already live "in a world overloaded with information", and that BBFCinsight exists "so that you can get the lowdown, then sit down, relax and enjoy the film." I'd be tempted to argue that, in the case of Two Days, One Night, the BBFC have overloaded the audience with more unnecessary information, and have in fact negatively affected our capacity to relax and enjoy the film.

I don't want to appear insensitive towards the issues the BBFC are attempting to address here, and I'm not for a moment suggesting that the mass enjoyment of a film is more important than the prevention of even one suicide. But I'd be fascinated to know exactly how many people, after arranging a trip out to the cinema, buying their tickets and popcorn and taking their seats, made the decision to get up and leave with seconds to go before the film starts based entirely on the information given on the black card. I'd hazard a guess that it's approximately zero, while the muttering that immediately followed the certificate's appearance in the Curzon Soho last week suggests that the number of people browned off by the appearance of an unavoidable plot spoiler is significantly higher.
The BBFC have an unenviable job trying to get the balance right when classifying films, and I'm not about to tear them a new one on the basis of one film. I'm not criticising Two Days, One Night's classification, nor the BBFC's explanation for it, but I would hope that they carefully consider whether revealing that information to an audience unable to avoid it is the best course of action when it has the potential to diminish the cinematic experience.


  1. I watched this via Curzon Home Cinema, so I had no idea about "Warninggate." Which begs the question - what's the point of the BBFC warnings when current legislation means that it won't appear on VOD screenings in people's homes... ie somewhere a vulnerable person could actually do some damage to themselves? The whole situation is a joke.

  2. I think the author of this post needs a hug

  3. Just chiming in answer to your question, as it's a good one:

    "But I'd be fascinated to know exactly how many people, after arranging a trip out to the cinema, buying their tickets and popcorn and taking their seats, made the decision to get up and leave with seconds to go before the film starts based entirely on the information given on the black card. I'd hazard a guess that it's approximately zero"

    When I saw the card come up, my insides utterly plummeted. I'd been in a very terrifying mental state for a couple of weeks, and had been staying with friends who could keep a very close eye. Going to see this was my special treat, and when the card came up I felt too socially awkward to leave (very expensive tickets for two + way to spoil a nice date and worry your guest!). I hadn’t even considered that this might occur, even though depression is a theme of the film.

    I enjoyed the film a lot, *but* that scene did have a big and bad impact on the ideation I was having (overdosing is one of the more dangerous ways you can harm yourself; I hadn't considered it before the film; I started planning to do that straight after and for the next couple of weeks. It looked so easy.)

    So I am in two minds. On the one hand, as a film fan I was disappointed at such an obvious spoiler - and I loved the film. On the other, I really did appreciate the extra time to prepare myself for that. And if I had been in the cinema on my own, I would likely have left.

    I don’t think the fact it’s a 15 is enough to signal “adult themes” to vulnerable viewers as many 15s are given for too many uses of “fuck” or other harmless stuff. (Recovery from mental health probs can take months and months, and abstaining from all cinema will only make me more depressed!) Nor do I think, as you suggest, that vulnerable viewers should guess at the content before buying tickets – if most people seeing the movie can probably guess there will be a suicide, then what harm does the spoiler actually do?

    A possible solution would be two black cards, with the first one reading "BBFC Information Upcoming: Turn Away Now".

    Anyway, this is an excellent essay, on a difficult topic. And of course it is complicated – if the card had read “child abuse” or “rape”, my gut would be erring with viewers on the side of “pissed off at spoilers” because those are not issues which affect me. But then I have friends with a history of abuse, who compulsively vomit if they unexpectedly see depictions of abuse. So, I (along with cinema managers everywhere) am still siding with the BBFC on this!

  4. The advice, when dealing with suicides, and without giving away a crucial plot arc, would be "this film contains possibly traumatic elements"

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. This is exactly the kind of viewpoint I should probably have sought out before wanging on about my own opinions. I'm glad to hear the black card had some use after all; it's still obviously a flawed process but I don't envy the BBFC in their mission to find the perfect balance.

    Thanks again for your kind comments and my sincerest wishes to you.


  6. very relieved to have warning info. please do not assume everyone has the same opinions/sensitivities/ as yourself. Information is choice which we all deserve.