Between Two Worlds
Juliette Binoche plays a journalist who works undercover as a cleaner to expose the plight of the underemployed in this unsurprising drama based on a nonfiction book.
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You may remember a book from about 20 years ago, “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich, in which a white-collar journalist went undercover in various unskilled labor jobs in order to see how America’s poor get by. No surprises at her finding: not easily.
Florence Aubenas did something very similar for her 2010 book, “The Night Cleaner,” working as a cleaning woman in different gig jobs, mostly notably the ferries that transport people and vehicles from France to England and back.
Ehrenreich’s book was never adapted into a movie, but Aubenas’ has, “Between Two Worlds” headlined by French star Juliette Binoche. (Actually, the film came out in France in 2021 but is just making it to our shores now for some reason.)
Let’s start with the title: I think “The Night Cleaner” is a much better one than “Between Two Worlds.” The latter is a bit pretentious, positing Binoche’s character, Marianne Winckler, as belonging to neither white collar or blue collar societies, when in fact she’s just slumming in one for a while.
If the film, directed by Emmanuel Carrère and cowritten by him and Hélène Devynck, had focused on Marianne’s torment at impersonating a cleaner, or struggling at giving up her pursuit of the story to return to her life of comfort, then “Worlds” would make for an appropriate title. There is a little of this, but only toward the end, when her ruse is inevitably found out and it imperils the interpersonal relationships she’s developed.
It’s a very well-acted piece, but of course because Binoche, still a leading light of French cinema. She gives Marianne a weight and sadness, as if she regrets having to lie to people in pursuit of a greater truth.
Marianne’s cover story is that was comfortably married but her husband dumped her for a younger woman, so she is returning to the workforce after more than 20 years away. She applies for low-level “gig” jobs where you go where the work is, sometimes only 12 or 15 hours a week. She meets people who must string together several of these, often laboring in the middle of the night, to get by.
Cleaning jobs are the most common, and the expectations companies have for these minimum-wage positions are extraordinary, starting with being outgoing and cheerful in interviews. During Marianne’s training, she is told about the wonderful advancement opportunities available, like becoming a trainer.
If you miss work or are late, even when the job site is far away and there is no public transportation to get there, you are summarily fired. Her ferry crew has to clean 230 bunk bedrooms each night, with just four minutes allotted apiece — brutal, back-breaking and often nasty work.
She becomes friends with a few of her fellow cleaners. There is Marilous (Léa Carne), very young and impressionable, who hopes to marry a man with money to take her away from this. Justine (Émily Madeleine) is the tall and incongruously glamorous veteran of the ferry crew everyone adores. Nadège (Évelyne Porée) is the ferry crew chief, very demanding but not nasty or impersonal like some of the other bosses Marianne encounters.
Marianne also begins an unexpected flirtation with Cedric (Didier Pupin), a similarly situated man about her age whose big dream in life is to have a pizza truck.
Her most important friendship is with Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), a headstrong and mouthy mother of three boys. She’s been working in this world for so long she can’t even imagine the sort of life Marianne had before, and will return to. She’s astonished when Marianne confesses that when she was married they had a maid to clean the apartment. Her first question: how many hours did the maid work and how much did she make?
One day they are driving home in the early morning after a ferry shift and Marianne suggests they stop and sit on the beach for a moment. Chrystèle realizes she’s gone by there hundreds of times but never even thought of doing so. Her mind has always been on going home, getting her boys ready for school and getting some sleep until her next cleaning job starts.
It’s a clear, crystallized moment capturing the different mindsets of the women, a separation that perhaps can never truly be bridged.
“Between Two Worlds” is an effective portrait of this chasm, but as a piece of storytelling it holds few surprises. Everything from the tone to the events that transpire are pretty much laid out for us at the outset. Even several dialogue exchanges seem like we were just waiting around for them to happen.
The story of a woman who chooses a monotonous existence shouldn’t feel stuck in a rut.