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► Between Two Worlds is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 27 May.

In Between Two Worlds, Marianne (Juliette Binoche) poses as a woman on welfare who eventually lands a job as a cleaner. She invents a backstory that her husband has left her and she has been forced to fend for herself. As a journalist who has set out to write a book about precarity, she worries that her understanding of the economic situation is too abstract, only known to her through statistics, and believes she must live through the system herself to fully grasp her subject. What she finds is, inevitably, exploitation and toil, but also solidarity and friendship among the cleaners she works alongside.

She lands a job as part of a cleaning crew on a ferry that shuttles tourists from Ouistreham – the port for Caen in Normandy – to Portsmouth in England, and develops an intense bond with a tempestuous and overworked single mom, Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), when she offers to drive her to the ferry for their 6am start. In voiceover, we hear her describe back-breaking work on the “hellish” ferry, which leaves her arms and shoulders shaking well into the night. The crew cleans hundreds of cabins in the sliver of time between groups of passengers, working at breakneck speed. Of course, in the back of our minds is the knowledge that the more pain she endures, the more engrossing her book will be.

Binoche in Between Two Worlds

Based on journalist Florence Aubenas’s reporting on workers in precarious employment in the port town of Caen, and directed by the writer Emmanuel Carrère (his first film since his adaptation of his own novel The Moustache in 2005), Between Two Worlds adopts a social-realist style that is at odds with its central figure, a movie star, Juliette Binoche. This approach is not unfamiliar: we can look to Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), also based on a nonfiction book, which places Frances McDormand among a group of nomads and precarious workers in the American Midwest. But Between Two Worlds gets to address the moral question of a wealthy, privileged woman taking on the role of someone living in poverty, head-on.

There are moments when Marianne’s lightness – she tends to laugh when she’s chastised or struggling – betrays her position. It’s thanks to the specific nature of her situation – that she can abandon the work at any time and go back to her comfortable life – that she can see the brutal conditions of this work as absurd, laughable. Binoche herself is also apart from the group, as the only professional actress in a cast of non-actors, and in interviews has described some version of the mutual support we see in the film: the cast helped her through a rough personal period, while she would help them remember their lines.

Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham, 2021)

Although it is meant as an exposé, the film doesn’t give us a figure at which to aim our outrage. Her fellow workers, as well as the low-level management who hustle them, are shown in a sympathetic light. The film makes no bones about the work’s exploitative nature, but the means by which exploitation is enforced are nowhere to be seen; the system chugs along, someone answering to someone else. Even the passive social worker who refuses to help a desperate and irate Chrystèle in the opening scene is thanked warmly at Marianne’s book launch.

The support and warmth Marianne experiences from her fellow cleaners is almost hard to believe: one couple lends her an unused car, others take her under their wing, they go bowling, and also support her even after her deception is revealed – they are mostly pleased by the exposure, which seems to be validating. At her book launch, the supervisor of the ferry crew thanks her for writing the book, which she believes will force passengers to confront and develop respect for the work they take for granted. It’s certainly what Marianne hopes, and what the film hopes too – that her deception is worthwhile.

But the film also casts doubt on this hope. In the last scene, Chrystèle, still incensed by Marianne’s lies, asks her to do one more shift on the ferry, to prove, as she says, that she can still scrub a toilet. Marianne, having shed her shapeless sweaters and straggly hair for a professional look, refuses; it would be nonsense, only a performance. Once the veil is lifted, the gulf between the two was re-established. We get the sense that Marianne has never felt the kind of solidarity or belonging that she finds as an interloper, but the film ends on Chrystèle’s resentment, disappointed not only by Marianne’s ruse, but by the loss of a friend who she assumed would live out the rest of her career in the same dead-end job.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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