Film Review – Between Two Worlds (2021)

As the flood of cost of living issues sweeps over any news outlet you care to name, Emmanuel Carrere’s Between Two Worlds takes on an even greater relevance than it may have originally intended. Based on a French non-fiction best seller by journalist Florence Aubenas and published in this country as The Night Cleaner, this expose of the gig economy, looking at the almost invisible underclass of workers doing those essential but low-paid jobs that we all take for granted has a topical edge, although perhaps not the sharpest one.

In a social security office in Caen, Chrystele (Helene Lambert) confronts a manager over the non-arrival of her benefit. At her wits’ end with the system, she’s frustrated, angry, makes sure everybody knows it and has no intention of going quietly to the back of the queue. On the other side of a wall is a very different proposition. Marianne (Juliette Binoche) is being interviewed in the hope of being assigned a job. A stay-at-home, middle class mum who’s now been dumped in favour of a younger model, her experience of the world of work is non-existent but she has to earn a living. The manager takes pity on her and signs her up for a cleaning job.

Chrystele and Marianne eventually meet, as co-workers initially cleaning offices and then working back to back shifts on the ferries, where they add changing bed linen to their skills – and it’s all done to strict and tight timescales. If they can’t keep up, they lose their job. If they disagree with the manager, they lose their job. You get the picture. The quiet Marianne and more assertive Chrystele become unlikely friends and the older woman is accepted as part of the wider group of cleaners. It’s hard, physical work but they still find time to support each other, even when they have the bare minimum to share. The camaraderie is strong and tangible.

If this sounds like Ken Loach with a French accent, the similarities are certainly apparent, but there’s a secret that, for the majority of the film, is shared only with us. Marianne isn’t what she says she is. A journalist, writing a book about those who do these menial jobs, she has convinced all her co-workers that she’s one of them to the extent that they all see her as a friend. Wondering if she’s going to be discovered adds a certain tension to many scenes: when will the other cleaners discover her secret and how will they react? We fear they’ll see it as a betrayal, especially as their lives are so different to the reality of hers. Marianne’s motives might be genuine and honest, but her belief that they’ll see things from her point of view makes her look naïve and undermines what she’s trying to do.

But although that uncertainty lurks in the back of your mind and escalates as the film moves towards its climax, the film never allows you to detach yourself from the people you’re watching on the screen. Carrere’s cast give their all in authentic performances and, even though Binoche is the star name here, she is never allowed to rise above them. Her usual luminous quality is toned down so that, stripped of makeup and wearing clothes that have seen better days, her performance is muted in a documentary-style film that puts the sheer grind of the women’s lives slap bang in the spotlight. It doesn’t offer easy answers and, in today’s post-pandemic world, the sad fact is that any possible solutions seem even further away than when the book was first published, over ten years ago.

★★★1/2


Drama | Cert: 12A | UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema from 27 May 2022 | Curzon | Dir. Emmanuel Carrere | Juliette Binoche, Helene Lambert, Louise Pociecka, Didier Pupin.