Centralizing the moral quandaries of undercover journalism rather than the gig economy the film is ostensibly about, Emmanuel Carrére’s Between Two Worlds often feels at war with itself. Loosely adapted from Florence Aubenas’s bestselling non-fiction book The Night Cleaner, which tracked Aubenas’s attempts to find work as a cleaner and shed light on the dire plight of minimum-wage workers in France in the early 2010s, Carrére’s adaptation foregrounds an Aubenas stand-in––here named Marianne, played by a deglamorized Juliette Binoche. As Marianne struggles to make a living with a series of odd cleaning jobs, she also tries reconciling her desire to write on behalf of these marginalized workers while, also, lying to them about her own life and economic standing.
So while Between Two Worlds is occasionally moving, and boasts a number of great performances––from Binoche, of course, but also from Hélène Lambert, playing a fellow struggling worker, in addition to the nonactors that populate supporting roles––it’s nevertheless hard to reconcile the intent behind the film with the decision to foreground Marianne’s point of view. It doesn’t help that the film holds this reveal for close to a half-hour––despite the marketing making Marianne’s dual life quite clear.
The film instead begins when Marianne visits an unemployment office in Caen with a bare-bones resume. There she’s instructed to take any type of cleaning work offered. Despite the grueling hours and minimum wage, there’s still competition for these jobs in the recession. Eventually she lands a more stable job cleaning an English channel ferry with Christèle (Lambert). A struggling mom with three kids, Christèle represents the type of marginalized worker that Marianne is seeking out, both using her for inspiration while also growing closer to her.
The interactions between Marianne and Christèle are the most naturalistic, the two bonding over the grudging labor they must perform. Between Two Worlds works best when narrowing in on the specific day-to-day existence these characters have to live out. Once Marianne gets a job on the ferry, she has to turn over beds and clean bathrooms at a stunningly rapid pace to keep her job, constantly changing sheets for 100 beds in less than two hours. Marianne notes in voiceover that such labor has lingering effects, with muscle spasms occurring while she sleeps.
When Carrére dives into the tiring minutia of this type of physical labor, the film finds its footing, mainly because these scenes play down the detached remove that Marianne’s other life gives the story. Instead we are thrust viscerally in the chaos of cleaning, workers running around to meet quotas for companies that are too cheap to pay for more hours. It’s a sensitive portrait of workers on the margins that makes clear the class differences between those rich enough to take the ferry and those who barely have time to look out over the water while they work.
Too often, however, we move away from Christèle and continually return to Marianne’s dilemma. It’s a narrative choice that may elicit some dramatic tension, but it also pushes the actual gig workers into secondary roles, relying too heavily on Marianne’s dual life. Even the title change foregrounds Marianne’s deception: she struggles to make sense of the ethical implications of both taking work from people who need it and lying to those she is growing close to. As she admits, she’s a tourist in this world, doing important ethnographic work but also able to escape to the confines of her privileged life whenever she wants. Binoche plays up this duality as well as anyone, and Lambert, in her first role, is a revelation. But by the end, Between Two Worlds feels a bit neutered, keeping the real issues at a remove.
Between Two Worlds opens in theaters on Friday, August 11.