Reel Life: Flick Pix
Heartfelt portrayal makes invisible workers visible
By Nora Lee Mandel
(at 2023 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema of Film at Lincoln Center)
Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham)
Directed by Emmanuel Carrère
Written by Emmanuel Carrère and Hélène Devynck, adapted from The Night Cleaner (Le Quai de Ouistreham) by Florence Aubenas
Produced by Olivier Delbosc, David Gauquié, and Julien Deris
107 minutes. France. Not Rated
In French with English subtitles
With: Juliette Binoche, Hélène Lambert, Léa Carne, Emily Madeleine, Patricia Prieur,
Evelyne Porée, and Didier Pupin
Release by Cohen Media Group - opens on August 11 in New York City and Los Angeles, followed by a national expansion.
Inspired by American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001) about her experiences undercover working low-wage jobs in the late 1990’s, French journalist Florence Aubenas similarly shared the recession of 2009 first-hand with the struggling working class in Caen, the second largest city in Normandy, and its port Ouistreham. Her report dramatically demonstrated how low-paying, part-time, temporary, erratically scheduled, physically demanding shifts stress bodies, mental health, and economic instability. This is again relevant to the U.S. as the GOP insists on stricter employment requirements for Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefit recipients.
Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche actively pursued adapting the book to show the plight of the hard-working women who are its stars. While in the film, the thematic focus shifts to the ethics of Binoche’s undercover writer (here called “Marianne Winkler” to differentiate the change in emphasis), the other workers are all embodied by non-professionals whose lives parallel the individuals in the book. This includes a couple of women who had worked with Aubenas, “Justine” (Emily Madeleine) and “Nadège” (Evelyne Porée).
The film is narrated by the writer as she comes up with her cover story and explains her guideline of not displacing a permanent hire, including to a suspicious interviewer at an employment agency, who agrees to secrecy. “Marianne” endeavors to scribble notes during the days, including on the unpaid, but required training sessions (to convincingly say “Cleaning is my passion”), and type up her experiences at night in her rented room. But she quickly learns that relationships with her fellow workers are essential to survive. They are needed for tips against the worst positions, how to handle confusing instructions, supercilious criticisms, and balky equipment, or where to borrow a car and get it fixed, as public transit is unreliable for the late and pre-dawn shifts when cleaning women have to operate. And the cleaners are almost all women.
While African migrants who can’t qualify for bare government services are seen as passing shadows on the road, the film does not re-live the book’s recognition of the pressure to “make the hours” needed for government benefits by taking any additional fill-in work. Instead, the film makes the cleaning crew of the docking cross-channel ferry seem a sufficient job. They develop a close camaraderie that the writer actively pursues for inclusion to learn more about their lives at home, with children, disabled partners, or other caregiving responsibilities. Binoche’s personal family matter is reflected in one brief scene.
“Marianne”s primary, and most fraught, relationship is with the caustic “Christèle” (Hélène Lambert seems justified to resent the world). After “Marianne” spends increasing time with her and her young children, “Christèle” is still suspicious of her background and is that much more hurt when the writer is accidentally outed. Others “Marianne” meets, like the shy “Marilou” (Léa Carne) and the flirtatious “Cédric” (Didier Pupin) are more forgiving of her ends justifies the means, especially as revealed in a post-publication epilogue.
While the centrality of the writer too much follows the “white savior” trope, the workers are distinctive enough, and their work and treatment drudgery enough, to still meet Aubernas’s goal of making the invisible people visible.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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