Empty Words and Broken Systems

illustration by Tony Stella

In their modest car, the man shuts off the radio, murmuring “enough.” His wife tells him to turn it back on and to stop protecting her, assuming he did it because he felt the song was too depressing. She cranks it up, lets out a small laugh, and takes his hand. He smiles tentatively and nods, and the camera returns to her as Petula Clark sings in French,

What a senseless world
I would like to sleep and not think anymore
I light a cigarette
I have dark ideas in my mind
And the night seems so long, so long, so long

It’s almost an hour into Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night before Sandra (Marion Cotillard) engages in this moment of relative playfulness, and it’s the first time we see her lips upturned. She’s in the middle of a battle for her factory job, and her dignity. Her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) is driving her around town to appeal one by one to her colleagues to forgo their annual bonuses so that she can keep working and have those funds as a salary. He has faith in her to convince the majority to back her, yet he reflexively shields her from a song. She pushes for her right to fill the space with Clark’s wistful expression of solitude.

The Dardenne brothers are known for their unflinching portrayals of working class life in Belgium, and in Two Days, One Night, they shed light on how difficult it can be to support a loved one who’s in poor mental health. Manu is loyal and Sandra’s greatest champion, yet treats her with kid gloves and is ultimately blind to the extent of her struggle. And his words only further the problematic narrative—prevalent across the world—that ailments like depression can be overcome through mental fortitude alone.

In an interview with The Guardian, Luc Dardenne states that they’d been wanting to tell the story of a woman in Sandra’s situation for years, but “the breakthrough came when we thought of Manu, her husband, as a kind of coach to guide and encourage her.” In the film’s press kit, Jean-Pierre Dardenne calls Manu “a bit like a union leader.” The directors may feel that Manu is the force behind Sandra, but in practice he is clueless as to how to truly prop her up, and shows that simply being well-meaning is not enough. He is unwavering, responding to her self-judging statements with “No, you’re not a mess” and “You exist.” But in urging her to forge ahead in her quest, he doesn’t acknowledge the very real pain and fatigue accompanying her current state. “The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job,” he says, and later, “You’re letting yourself go.” He speaks from a place of optimism bordering on naiveté. While he has the best of intentions, Manu links wellness with strength and resolve, setting up an additional challenge for Sandra: to prove to him that she is well.

Manu acts as if illness is a passing scourge, not something that could take up permanent residence in their lives. He carries on with his encouragement, not seeing how degrading and exhausting it is for her to pitch her cause over and over, and unable to fathom the extent of the storm within her. When she looks up at a tree and tells him that she wishes she were the bird singing there, he shifts his gaze to the bird and back to her, with concern and puzzlement. Like many a bystander to a loved one’s internal struggles, Manu falls short in grasping the complexity of her vulnerability and instead floods her with oversimplified “keep your head up” statements. He lacks the tools to support her were she to dip in and out of illness indefinitely, and would rather turn off the sad songs than look a different future in the face.

We don’t know exactly why Sandra took leave from work, but we can see symptoms of depression and anxiety as she takes to bed, believes she is worthless, has trouble breathing when she’s distressed, and quaffs Xanax. While depression can tunnel a person into toxic self-focus and irrational thinking, and words like “selfish” are common in mainstream discourse around suicide, Sandra disrupts these conceptions, emerging as a more realistic thinker than her husband. She doesn’t forget about her children’s needs, and she thinks with more practicality and foresight than Manu, who seems to not have considered what will happen beyond the two days and one night. “If I’m taken back, those who lose their bonus, how will they look at me?” Sandra asks. “How will I deal with them all day?” He has no reply. On another occasion, she brings up the possibility that they will split up if her condition does not improve, and again he is silent.

Cotillard’s performance never devolves into caricature, and contains few echoes of common depictions of troubled women as hysterical, disturbed, or warranting hospitalization. Her storyline, however, falters when she attempts suicide. Not only is the timeline of her recovery implausible, but she falls in line with the many female protagonists who decide to take their lives (see Still Alice, Room, and The Hours), and Two Days, One Night becomes another film using suicide, or an attempt at it, as a second-act turning point, à la Girl, Interrupted. Sandra’s desperation is evident in Cotillard’s astoundingly complex expressions, and by following her through her ordeal, we are close enough to her to feel the escalation without needing it to culminate in this way. Its inclusion interrupts what’s so remarkable about Two Days, One Night—its de-emphasis on diagnosis and its commitment to showing how illness complicates the everyday struggle to provide and survive.

In fact, it is not her illness that drives Sandra to swallow all her pills, nor is it her illness that creates the central conflict of the film. Rather, it’s the grueling system that sets up her lose-lose situation, pitting her against her peers, diminishing her worth in society, and asking her to go quietly, to die even. The film is as much about the trials of one woman as it is about the dangerous clash of health and capitalism.

As the film progresses, we’re set up to judge each person who won’t side with Sandra, yet we quickly see that they are fellow victims of capitalism’s crushing emphasis on profit and individualism. We visit them outside the workplace, and learn, alongside Sandra, that they are not enemies, but rather struggling to stay afloat as much as she is. None are greedy or privileged—even Anne, who has the grandest-looking home, toward which the 1,000-euro bonus would go, is disenfranchised due to an abusive husband. Sandra appeals to them to act based on empathy and personal history with her, and tries to stoke a spirit of togetherness and mutual understanding. “I want to be with you, not alone on the dole,” she tells Hicham. But capitalism discourages solidarity, collaboration, and loyalty. Facing Sandra one-on-one throws many of them into an anguished state; the system has made it so that 1,000 euros—a drop in the bucket for a middle-class worker—is a lifeline.

Even the most powerful men in the film, the boss Dumont and foreman Jean-Marc, are as much cogs in the grinding machine of capitalism as Sandra and her colleagues are. Capitalism demands that they be ruthless in trimming the fat from their operation, and they explain their actions using the language of efficiency that seeks more output at the lowest cost. Dumont tells Sandra, “I have nothing against you, but I have to deal with competition from Asian solar panels”—the mechanics of capitalism leave his position constantly threatened as well. Jean-Marc lashes out at her, saying “Happy now you’ve stirred up the shit?” and while he seems like a standard issue enforcer, he has simply been trained by the system to protect his own interests, and is frustrated that she has divided the group after he had aligned them his way. A divided workforce is an unwieldy one, and a threat to productivity. We’re tempted to vilify Dumont and Jean-Marc, but on closer examination, they’re also oppressed by economic structures that are not centered around humanity.

Sandra exits the film with her head held high, but her final act is more symbolic than effective. In rejecting Dumont’s eleventh-hour offer to rejoin the company, she pushes back against capitalist values, choosing not to put her colleague Alphonse on the chopping block. Yet her small protest will make little difference; Alphonse is just as likely to lose his job in the future. She has been granted a temporary moment of pride, but she lives in a merciless world that’s betting against her survival.

It’s disappointing to see her give Manu shared credit for her renewed faith in herself. Her penultimate words to him are “We put up a good fight.” He did little more than shuttle her around and cycle through platitudes, and as viewers, we know it was her who carried herself through, and not Manu’s voice in her head. We’ve seen her primarily alone, walking at an even pace, purse tugging at one shoulder. She approaches each person, waits pensively at doors, chooses all her own words, and reveals her innate grace and kindness—and a stamina that illness hasn’t managed to fully extinguish. In the face of another challenge, she may see that she and Manu are a divided “we.” He is in her corner, but his rhetoric is in line with the insidious structures of capitalism, rendering her the only person actually pushing against the powers that long to keep her down.

Two Days, One Night illustrates how the binary of wellness and sickness, when tangled up with capitalism, turns into classifications of who can work and who cannot, rendering the sick expendable. Sandra’s dedication to getting her job back impresses Dumont, and she makes the case to him that she is one of the well, and fit to work. But the minute she feels less well, her sense of worth, in her own eyes and society’s, will collapse again. Over a marathon weekend, Sandra shows that she can be irrepressible—but she can never win, or live in the gray between both poles, listening to a song at full volume with something between a smile and a grimace on her face.