The most tense scene I saw in any movie this year was Marion Cotillard leaning against a blank wall gulping from a bottle of water.
Cotillard is playing Sandra in “Two Days, One Night,” yet another must-see from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (“The Kid with a Bike,” “Rosetta,” “The Child,” “The Son”). Sandra is waiting for the results of a vote taken by the employees of Solwal, the company where she used to work. When the movie opens she has barely, partially overcome a severe depression; she’s ready to work again, but her boss has other ideas.
He decides that the other workers will choose between rehiring Sandra or getting a thousand-Euro bonus each. They vote and Sandra loses, but the boss decides—he has this power to make the rules—that there will be a revote on Monday, in response to claims that the foreman intimidated people in the initial vote. The title refers to the one weekend Sandra has to convince the others to choose her job over their paychecks.
It’s a searing movie. Sandra visits each worker alone: Her husband offers to go with her, but she knows she has to undergo this serial humiliation by herself. She’s exhausted by shame. After an initial conversation with the leader of her tiny band of supporters, she’s panting as if she’s just run up a flight of stairs. She gulps Xanax to stay strong enough to beg for her job.
She does have support. Her husband and a couple of her former coworkers stand by her as she struggles to put together a majority for the Monday-morning vote. But none of them are in the trapped, miserable position she’s in; none of them have to expose themselves as rawly as she does. So it makes sense that even when her husband is touching her tenderly and explaining that one of her friends just persuaded another employee to support her, all she can say is, “I feel so alone.”
Sandra has no argument. She never tries to point to her own productivity; she just says that she needs the job, and that she isn’t the one who created this awful conflict. What she has to do requires incredible strength, yet the very fact that she has to do it—and the additional fact that it exhausts her inner resources—makes her feel weak. By exposing her (unearned) shame, she sometimes shames others into supporting her. Other times, they explain their reasons for picking the bonus over her, and she has to say, “I’m not mad. I understand.”
And the ones who say they’ll vote against her are easy to understand. They’re poor, sometimes poorer than she is; they have families to support; they didn’t create this conflict either. The psychology of the ones who switch to her side is more complex. There’s an unexpectedly funny scene where one of them thanks her fervently: He knew he did the wrong thing, he says, when he voted against her initially. By coming to him to beg, she’s allowed him to redress the wrong. He’s so intense and adamant that she’s visibly taken aback. For several of these workers the chance to support Sandra becomes a means for their own redemption or liberation. That’s great and all, but will she get her job back?
This is a Dardennes film, so there’s a twist. I was wondering if it would happen, but when it did, I was still blindsided. It’s a twist which makes the movie’s underlying spirituality unavoidable, startlingly blunt, not like a tract but like a parable. The opening and closing scenes both involve a cell phone, and Sandra physically alone; the contrast between them is unabashedly stark and deliberate.
If I were a college chaplain–and there are excellent reasons I’m not!—I might put together a film-food-and-discussion series on, let’s say, “Depression and the Search for Meaning,” featuring “Damsels in Distress,” “God Help the Girl,” and “Two Days, One Night.” All of these movies work within (to one degree or another) the contemporary medicalized view of depression, in which it’s an illness like other illnesses. But they also suggest that living through or with depression requires not solely medication or therapy but a rediscovery of meaning, some form of personal renewal and liberation which one might call spiritual. They play against each other interestingly—music and beauty flow through “Damsels” and “God Help”; solidarity links “Damsels” and “Two Days”; they’ve got wildly different genres and levels of hilarity, from “Damsels”‘s winsome comedy to the Dardennes’ long-take realism; and all three movies allow an underlying religious vision to break through into explicit reference at a few key points. (They all center on women; are there recent movies I’m forgetting which explore a man’s renewal in the face of depression, or are we still too uncomfortable with seeing men in this shamed, weakened, and supplicant position?)
“Two Days, One Night” is a harrowing, profoundly moving film. I keep trying to come up with adjectives to make you see it but I think Victor Morton has written the definitive capsule review.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.