Songs on the Car Radio

Now that we can access just about all of the world’s recorded music with ease on our phones, listening to actual car radio — to whatever the DJ happens to play — can feel wonderfully archaic. Part of the pleasure is submiting to someone else’s tastes, to the format, to the aleatory patterning of a sonic flow into which you step in and out as you wish (you can always twist the channel), but which you cannot yourself determine.

Why does it feel so special to happen upon a favorite song on the car radio, even if you could play it anytime you want at home? Certain car radio songs appear like tea leaves at the bottom of the cup: it means something when a song appears at a certain moment; the fact that it could have been any song — but was just this one — gives it a special power to mark the moment.

And it’s a moment that visual media loves. One of the greatest, funniest and most formally audacious scenes in Louie occurred in “Country Drive” — episode five of season two — as Louie drove his two tween kids out of the city to visit a great-aunt. The girls didn’t want to go in the first place, and were already bored and complaining when the Who’s excessive 1978 synth masterpiece “Who Are You?” came on the radio. Louie is psyched, and gets more and more into it throughout the intro, shaking his head, wriggling his fingers, keeping rhythm, lip-synching. When Roger Daltrey starts singing, Louie joins in with slightly alarming conviction: “I woke up in a Soho doorway, the policeman knew my name!” He keeps glancing back at his daughters: initially to entice them to join in, eventually, as he fails to get any reaction, probably to annoy them. He’s air drumming, throwing air punches, kind of freaking out. The two girls stare balefully, silent, embarrassed for him, occasionally wincing slightly at a particularly emotional gesture. We sit through the entire experience in real time, sensing that for these few minutes, Louie remembers freedom, abandon, ecstatic release. After the song ends, everyone acts as if this interlude never happened.

My favorite car radio scenes since that episode of Louie appear in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, Belgium’s submission this year for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Dardenne brothers’ films — which have twice won the Palme D’Or, Cannes’ top prize — are best known for their now much-imitated handheld camerawork, often filmed just behind characters’ heads and conveying a sense of vivid emotional intensity. But a close second would be their tendency to reject soundtrack music or score for their films. The title of 2008’s Lorna’s Silence suggests the Dardennes’ interest in the aesthetic and ethical potential of silence: as a minimalism and an austerity, a refusal of Hollywood convention; as a space to allow speech; as a generous form of listening.

2014’s Two Days, One Night brought new mainstream visibility to the Dardennes, in part because of its brilliant performance by Marion Cotillard, the first international star they’ve ever cast, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. The movie begins as Cotillard’s character Sandra, a young married mother of two who we soon learn has been suffering from severe depression, receives a call from a colleague telling her that their boss has decided that the company cannot afford to both keep Sandra, and also pay the company’s other sixteen employees their expected end of year bonus. Sandra has the weekend, the two days of the film’s title, to try to convince a majority of her colleagues to vote to give up the bonus in order to allow her to keep her job.

One quickly gets accustomed to the relative quiet of Two Days, One Night; the lack of a theme-signaling, emotion-prompting musical score encourages our concentrated focus on Sandra’s quest. So when a song does appear on the soundtrack, it’s a noticeable interruption.

The first song: Sandra is in the driver’s seat of the car driven by her husband Manu, strategizing on the phone with Juliette, as a song begins: Petula Clark’s 1970 hit “La Nuit n’en finit plus,” a French version of “Needles and Pins” (first recorded in English by Jackie DeShannon in 1963). As Sandra says goodbye to her friend, Manu turns off the music, commenting, “Enough”: in this, he is perhaps articulating the directors’ own minimalist approach to soundtrack music, which we can presume they view as often too manipulative, offering phony or canned sentiment, un-cinematic, as showing rather than telling.

“Why turn it off?” Sandra asks. Manu: “Want it back on?” “Yes, stop protecting me…. You thought the song was too depressing for me.” Manu: “Well, it’s not exactly…” Sandra reaches over and defiantly turns up the song, and Clark’s voice rises in the mix: “Et de tout ce temps perdu/ Dire qu´il y a tant d´êtres sur la terre/ Qui comme moi ce soir sont solitaires” (“And of all this lost time/ To think that there are so many beings on the earth/ Who like me tonight are alone…”).

Here, Cottilard smiles broadly for the first time in the movie. Our first glimpse of her, in the film’s opening scene, was of her first receiving the bad news from Juliette, which knocked her into a Xanax-induced collapse under the covers in her bed; since then, we’ve seen her energized by the possibility of saving her job, grateful for the support of her husband and friends, but always on edge, in emergency mode, often breaking into tears, “crying like an idiot.” She’s said that she feels that she “doesn’t exist,” that she is “nothing.” In an earlier scene, as she sits with Manu on a park bench, she comments, “I can’t stop crying. I’m losing my voice now.” She shrugs off Manu’s attempt at a reassuring touch, and comments, “I wish that was me.” It’s not at first clear to what she is referring until she adds, “that bird singing.” We now notice the twittering of a bird in the background. She comments, “I feel so alone.”

The exchange over the Petula Clark song on the radio now inspires her first full, happy-seeming smile, and she and Manu sit in silence as Clark continues to sing, Sandra’s eyes darting towards him several times, continuing to smile:

“C´est triste à mourir
Quel monde insensé
Je voudrais dormir et ne plus penser
J´allume une cigarette
J´ai des idées noires en tête
Et la nuit me parait si longue, si longue, si longue”

[It’s sad to the point of death

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] (1)

As Clark sings, “Je voudrais dormir et ne plus penser,” Sandra reaches over and takes Manu’s hand; he nods at her, as if to say: I’m glad you can smile; we can do this together; you’re not alone. The song’s theme of lonely desperation might seem too on-the-nose in signaling to us what Sandra has been feeling. But after all, sometimes just the right (or perfectly wrong) song does come on the radio, and it breaks the mood, or makes you smile; sometimes a song about desperate loneliness can be exactly what you need to make you feel less desperately alone.

The second song: later, Sandra and Manu are in the car with another of Sandra’s colleagues, Anne, who has surprisingly, after an earlier refusal, come over to Sandra’s side, and has also revealed to them that she is leaving her husband. Now, for the first time, Sandra and Manu have someone else with them in the car, and the momentum seems to have shifted; you feel that Sandra may for the first time feel that she can really pull this off. Manu asks, “A little music? Time to rock.” Sandra: “You like rock music?” Anne: “I love it.” “So do we.” Manu turns it up, it’s Van Morrison singing “Gloria,” and the camera pans from Sandra, to Anne, to Manu, each smiling and nodding, and soon, tunelessly singing along, Manu tapping on the steering wheel. Sandra is yelling now, and smiling as she sings: “Gloria! Gloria!” They’re all almost laughing — especially when Sandra starts to sing the refrain one time too many, then stopping mid-phrase — and as the song ends, Anne lets out a little whoop from the back seat.

Two Days, One Night is all about the mediation of human communication and intimacy and solidarity, and also about what takes place when that mediation drops away. Sandra and Manu are constantly working their phones, texting, looking up the addresses of her colleagues, all of this effort usually culminating in a face-to-face. In her depression and desperation, Sandra is fighting for recognition, struggling to feel that she exists, that she has a voice, that she is worthwhile and not alone. The film clears away all soundtrack music to allow the space, and silence, for these confrontations. But then it allows music back in, to allow pop songs to serve their communal function as a soundtrack for shared feeling.

“To think that there are so many beings on the earth/ Who like me tonight are alone:” have you ever felt closer to someone else than when a song that you both love, that you can sing badly along to, comes on the car radio, and this piece of pre-recorded canned emotion chosen by some DJ, a dumb song you’ve heard a thousand times before, somehow makes you realize that you are less alone than you thought?

Ivan Kreilkamp:  Novels are long, life is short.

1: Lyrics translation here.