Juliette Binoche gets her hands dirty in the French drama Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham), the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight opener from Emmanuel Carrère. Adapted from Florence Aubenas’ bestseller Le Quai De Ouistreham, it centers on Marianne Winckler, an author who goes undercover as a cleaner in order to write a book about her experiences.
Posing as a cash-strapped divorcée who needs work in the city of Caen, she’s sent from the job center to cleaning school, where she learns just enough to be hired at the port of Outistreham. And so this well-heeled journalist rolls up her sleeves and scrubs toilets on ferries, forming a tight bond with her co-workers while secretly taking notes on them. The stage is set for a tense reveal, but the main focus of Between Two Worlds is on friendship, character and sociopolitical comment.
Striking an inquisitive and relatable note, Binoche is ideal in the lead role. She’s also, in a way, an actor playing an actor. Marianne seems uncomfortable with the deception as she fields questions about her life from her co-workers, sticking to a script while being as evasive as possible. But there’s also the journalistic glint in her eye when she spies a story. And then there’s her compassionate side: she forms a genuine connection with the women, and is positively squirming with middle class guilt, something many audiences will share watching this. The script is at pains to educate the privileged about those who can barely afford to feed their children, and who walk hours to complete a single shift in a thankless gig economy. And these are French citizens — the situation for immigrants is much tougher, as a few pointed lines of dialogue remind us. It’s pedagogic but effective, much like the work of Cannes favorite Ken Loach.
But the tone is more upbeat than the likes of Sorry We Missed You, thanks to vivid supporting characters played by street-cast first timers. Christèle (Hélène Lambert) is a formidable single mother and a layered character: she’s outspoken, generous and witty as well as world-weary and suspicious.
Two memorable smaller roles are filled by real characters from the book: Amazonian Justine and boss Nadège (Evelyne Borée), whose party trick involves posing as an expressionless statue while her workmates try to provoke her. This comical moment wouldn’t look out of place in The Office: An American Workplace. And it’s these observational details that really bring the film to life — presumably the very same that helped make Aubenas’ book such a hit.
Like fellow French film Girlhood, this finds an infectious joy in the bonds between its working class characters — even if one of them is an imposter. Between Two Worlds hits all the beats of an arthouse crowd pleaser for audiences who, like Marianne, can go back to their comfortable homes with a renewed appreciation for the people who clean up after them.