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The Sunshine State

In Two Days, One Night, Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s 2014 installment of their series of portrayals of contemporary psychosocial landscapes of precarity, the protagonist, a woman named Sandra (Marion Cotillard), is coming out of a period of clinical depression and is now faced with redundancy. Struggling to return to her job at a small solar panel factory, Sandra roams—by car, by bus, and by foot, often hesitantly, always tired—the urban and exurban spaces in and around Seraing in French-speaking Wallonia. She is seeking support for her cause from her coworkers, who are ashamed for taking a small bonus at the cost of Sandra’s unemployment, but who have a hard time turning their bad conscience into solidarity with the woman.

The “days” of the film’s title are bathed in relentless sunlight. A hot Belgian summer turns Sandra’s quest into a physical challenge, into an act of enduring heat and light. Occasionally she escapes the sunshine by lying down in bed, surrendering to the pull of her depression, protected by curtains that filter the glaring light. The extreme weather conditions figure as the cruel irony of the crisis haunting parts of the European solar industry, a crisis which of course is not limited to a single economic sector, however much it affects the production of photovoltaic cells in particular (and with great symbolic-symptomatic force).

Not too long ago, solar technology was considered to be part of the (green) future and was therefore entitled to be forever green-lighted for subsidies. Since then, the solar industry has come under the immense pressure of global (especially Chinese) competition, leading to a slump in solar module prices as expansion in production capacity has outpaced growth, ironically causing the bankruptcy in 2013 of Suntech Power Holdings Co., China’s biggest manufacturer of solar panels. “Solwal,” as the film’s factory is called—confounding the cosmic (sun) and the regional (Wallonia)—is the sad and saddening focus of Sandra’s attention, although it is almost entirely absent from the camera’s eye, stowed away in an indistinct industrial park. The factory is supposed to provide the protagonist with work, as well as with a social environment of mutual support and the money to live life like everybody else. But it fails utterly to deliver any of these essentials.

The Dardenne brothers’ “Solwal” is as far away from the sun as one can imagine. Other than the narrative and allegorical function of this place that refers to the neoliberal destruction of organized labor and the prosaic financialization of sunlight, this bleakness may bear a relation to specific structural inequalities. Compared with Belgium’s Flemish Region, for instance, Wallonia lags far behind in solar energy matters. It accounts for only about 12 percent of the country’s photovoltaic capacity, whereas the Flemish Region accounts for the other 88 percent. Although solar power in Belgium grew significantly from 2009 to 2012, expecting to reach “grid parity” in 2016, it is reported to have since declined. Deeply affected by the changing supply/demand ratio of photovoltaic technology, by national and transnational energy policies, and by the global competition in labor, knowledge, and raw materials, Sandra is an emblematic figure of the intersection of a plurality of crises and transformations. Using her as a highly vulnerable guide, Two Days, One Night envisages both the precariousness inflicted by the neoliberal economy and climate change, and a world in which a Western Europe once prosperous thanks to heavy fossil industry (coal, iron) now resembles a suburbanized sunbelt landscape, with a population moved and shaken by planetary forces. Though the film ends on a somewhat questionable note, calmly celebrating the resilience of its main character (the full-on experience of her powerlessness and dependency on others ultimately helps her overcome her depression), it provides considerable arguments, persuasive images, and other sensory evidence for the necessity of conceiving our contemporary condition in multiple, interrelated terms, of looking for the connections and causalities that can sustain a discourse on politics, economy, and affectivity under the sun.

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