Image Credits: Cinéart

Empathy & Economy in Two Days, One Night

By ​Natasha Oladokun - July 1, 2016, 8:00 AM

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. It’s a simple principle, a shared system of values across religions and secular humanism, an outline for the ethics of basic human empathy. And yet, The Golden Rule is probably more clear cut when there is no monetary attachment or familial responsibility tied to it.

In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard gives a beautiful performance as Sandra, a young wife and mother of two children, who faces being fired from her job after her supervisor suggests that her work there is redundant. Behind her back, he gathers the sixteen other employees in her division and requires them to cast a ballot: they may vote to receive a bonus of €1000 each, resulting in Sandra’s termination; or they may vote to keep her, but give up their bonuses. After receiving word of this, Sandra realizes that she only has the space of a weekend to try to persuade her coworkers to vote in her favor. The film makes a simple request: put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Two Days, One Night prompted me to consider once again how I value money—particularly in the context of exerting power. As I put myself in Sandra’s shoes, her desperation and fear were palpable to me, and the thought of having to go from door to door begging for what should be rightfully mine filled me with dread and anger, my pride already wounded on her behalf. As I tried to look at things from her coworkers’ perspectives, the answer seemed clear to me: taking money at the expense of someone else’s livelihood is a flagrant moral transgression. There was nothing to debate.

And yet, in ninety minutes, the film seems to account for nearly every imaginable permutation of human reaction in a situation such as this. Compassion, greed, survival instinct, empathy, indifference, and sacrifice all make their way into the drama’s central conflict, as Sandra again and again must appeal, individually, to her coworkers’ collective sense of mercy. But the film covers its bases well, by maintaining a sympathetic eye across the spectrum of responses: those who agree to vote for Sandra are not necessarily rendered any more humanely than those who refuse. Those who say “no” do so for a variety of reasons, widely ranging in terms of their justification. Some of Sandra’s coworkers are in desperate need, themselves, while others see her plight as entirely beyond the realm of their control or responsibility. The reply It’s not my fault this is happening repeats itself like a mantra—any acknowledgement that it’s not Sandra’s fault, either, is conspicuously absent.

Still, Two Days, One Night prompted me to consider, as well, why I felt so strongly about the morality of what “the right choice” would be. I began to consider if my vehemence is rooted in my having no financial responsibility for anyone beyond myself. What if I had a child to care for, or people who were dependent upon me, or someone I loved who was sick? Would I be so hasty in my decision-making? And what is at the root of my disgust towards those who have an opportunity to help (and would be within their means to do so), but refuse—as though I myself have never been selfish? Is this, too, not judgment? And what about economy, as well? In what ways have I knowingly or unknowingly benefited from the misfortune of others? Where is the morality in that?

Without spoiling the ending (which takes many of the questions that I’ve raised and spectacularly tosses them all around), I will say that Two Days, One Night maintains an intelligent, measured focus on individual experience, where human beings exist in situations beyond their control but choose to act based on what they know and what is within their reach. This film asks us what it would mean to look beyond ourselves—recognizing that compassion, like many good things, is costly.

Natasha Oladokun is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her poetry and essays most often explore faith, doubt, the divine, and learning to know God through language and creative expression. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, where she learned that genres are only sort of a real thing. Follow her on Twitter at @NatashaOladokun.