Juliette Binoche excels as an undercover author in the world of low-wage domestic labourers.
There’s a funny early episode of The Simpsons when method actor and latter-day fascism apologist James Woods gets a job at the Kwik-E-Mart as a way to help him immerse himself in a new film role. Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds, based on Florence Aubenas 2010 volume of reportage, ‘Le Quai de Ouistreham’, is not a million miles away from this set-up, as author Marianne (Juliette Binoche) detaches herself from family, friends and peers, decamps to the desolate port town of Caen and envelops herself in her new subject: the world of low-wage cleaners.
Unlike James Woods, Marianne has decided that her in with this community should not be as an educated, bourgeois outsider looking to objectively monitor and document this disregarded and much-maligned world. Instead, she decides to secretly become a part of it, get her hands (very) dirty and learn by doing. Yes, she is an interloper in a place to which she doesn’t belong, but she firmly believes this is the most rigorous and ethically sound way to achieve her desired goals. What could possibly go wrong?
Carrère’s intriguing and sensitive drama contains a nice line in earnest auto-critique, as Marianne’s journey and the questions she asks of herself are the same as any well-heeled filmmaker who chooses to point their camera across the class divide. What right do artists have when it comes to telling the stories of those unseen throngs living on the periphery of society? Should these people not be empowered to tell their own stories? And if so, would people listen to them?
Binoche keeps things admirably low-key in the lead, sporting dowdy discount leisurewear and hair tied back in a borrowed scrunchy. Despite the act that she puts on, the empathy she extends towards her cohorts is returned, and though this is very much a portrait of hardscrabble lives, it is one which is open to capturing both the highs along with the lows. Though the film draws in many characters, including one charmingly insistent guy who, from their first interaction, is keen to ensnare Marianne in a relationship, it soon trains its focus on Christèle (Hélène Lambert), seen in the opening shot tramping towards the job centre with a bone to pick with someone.
Despite the introduction, Christèle doesn’t end up being a ball of coiled rage. Her dogged endurance and dedication to the upkeep of her three pre-teen sons frames her as woman whose potential is not being met by a jobs market in which people seem to be sluiced into the service sector to be exploited for no pay. Mariane is aware that the fond relationship she builds with Christèle is ephemeral and that the mask will soon have to slip for her to be able to do her job, and it’s all the more upsetting for her because the bond she has cultivated does seem so genuine.
The final boss level of our dubious heroine’s travails takes us to the Caen-Portstmouth ferry, whose 150-plus cabins require toilets scrubbed and beds turned down, in a tiny turnaround window, and all for a pittance. It’s here where the film sounds its only duff note (though it is a big one) as the juicy question of when and how Mariane will reveal her true identity is dealt with in a manner that is at best unsatisfactory, and at worst downright lazy. Yet despite this late-game gaff, the film comes good and rounds off on a note of cool ambivalence rather than opting for the obvious fiery denouncement of middle-class treachery (cf Ken Loach).
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Published 7 Jul 2021
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