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!