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Between Two Worlds

In "Between Two Worlds," Marianne (Juliette Binoche) is first seen waiting in a line at a crowded job referral office, people jostling around her, frustrated by the wall of bureaucracy, desperate for work. She gets a job with a cleaning company, goes through rigorous training, and then suffers through a series of gigs, scrubbing toilets and wiping down office desks in the dead of night. She finally gets a job with a crew who cleans the Ouistreham ferry (which travels from Caen to Portsmouth twice a day). The job is described in fearsome terms as a "commando op": the crew has to clean 230 rooms twice a day, four minutes per room. The hours are brutal, the work grueling. This is a world where everyone struggles; no one has a car, no one has two coins to throw together, no one has leisure time, no time to make plans or even think.

But Marianne has a secret. She's actually a journalist working undercover. She has heard about the "crisis" of unemployment, of the "invisible" population of people struggling in these precarious jobs with no stability. She wants to make it real for herself; she wants to not just see it with her own eyes but experience it. She wants to write a book about her time with these "cleaning ladies."

Directed by Emmanuel Carrère and based on Florence Aubenas’s 2011 book Le quai de Ouistreham, her reporting on the ferry workers in Caen, "Between Two Worlds" is between two subjects: there's the ferry workers themselves, a rowdy fascinating bunch, and Marianne's private anxiety about lying to them. The conflict is unavoidable: Marianne does the work like everyone else but can stop at any time. She has a life back in Paris and a book contract. So while her arms shake after making 230 beds and she's as physically exhausted as her colleagues, she's still just a tourist. The people she meets have no escape routes. Marianne's pain and stress about living undercover can't help but highlight her privilege. The workers she meets are far more interesting than she is.

"Between Two Worlds" does address the inequality and condescension inherent in Marianne's quest to see the "invisible." A social worker at the job office recognizes Marianne as a famous author and asks her what the hell she thinks she is doing, trying to be a cleaning lady. Didn't it occur to Marianne that she would be taking a job from someone who actually needed it? Marianne hopes, feebly, that it will be worth it to expose unfair and inhumane working conditions, etc. But the questions asked of her in the job office persist throughout. The film has undeniably good intentions. It strives for a Ken Loach-style reality and sometimes achieves it. Juliette Binoche is the only star. The rest of the people in the film (except for one) are all plucked from real life with no other credits. This highlights the "difference" of Marianne, part of the group yet somehow separate from it.

The excellent Hélène Lambert plays Chrystèle, a single mother whose only option is the ferry job. She wants to save her money to get more tattoos. She has to walk to work, and so Marianne, who has a car (given to her, improbably, by a fellow cleaning lady who happens to know someone with a beat-up car they're willing to pass on to Marianne for free), offers to drive Chrystèle to and from work. A strange and meaningful friendship blossoms, although you can see Marianne assessing Chrystèle as a potential "subject" for her book. Chrystèle is a great character. She's tough and capable but also fragile and open, qualities she has sought to cover up to face her challenges. Marianne helps her to take a little bit of time to chill out, to relax. Chrystèle's openness to this new friendship is perilous. You wonder: How will she react when the truth is revealed? Because it must be revealed!

The problem is in the setup. Marianne wants to know what it is like for "these people." She sees what it is like, and she experiences it. But what it is "like" is different than what it IS. It's easy for her to encourage Chrystèle to take an afternoon off and go to the beach. Why hasn't it occurred to Chrystèle? Because she has three young sons, barely any income, and lives in constant stress. The ferry crew is a tight-knit bunch. I've seen a couple of reviews criticizing their good-natured camaraderie as not believable. I guess these critics have never worked an exhausting menial job, where camaraderie with co-workers is an important survival skill. It helps you get through the day. Their acceptance of Marianne is contingent upon her capability: if she dragged them down with incompetence, they'd shun her, but she keeps up with the work, so they embrace her.

These peripheral characters are all so interesting they could carry their own individual films: The tough supervisor (Evelyne Porée), the glamorous Justine (Emily Madeleine), the hopeful romantic Cédric (Didier Pupin), the young woman (Léa Carne) dreaming of skipping town with her boyfriend. The problem with "Between Two Worlds" is that it presents the ferry crew's work as though the critique is understood, but it isn't. Yes, the conditions are brutal. But the system is to blame. It's always the system, and Marianne shows no interest in the systemic issues creating these appalling job conditions, widening the gap between haves and have-nots. This "lack" of a serious critique makes "Between Two Worlds" the story of a pampered journalist confronted with how "these people live," plus the fallout when her lie is discovered, rather than a real shot fired at an unfair system.

Marianne's book will presumably be a success, and her middle-to-high-class readers will remind themselves to be friendly to the cleaning ladies and give them good tips.

But what happened to Chrystèle? How is she doing? What is she doing? Is she okay? Marianne is forgettable. Chrystèle is not.

Now playing in theaters. 

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Between Two Worlds movie poster

Between Two Worlds (2023)

Rated NR

107 minutes


Juliette Binoche as Marianne Winckler

Hélène Lambert as Chrystèle

Louise Pociecka as Louise

Steve Papagiannis as Steve

Jérémy Lechevallier as Eric

Kévin Maspimby as Kévin

Faïçal Zoua as Faïçal


Writer (essay "Le Quai de Ouistreham")





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