DIRECTOR: Emmanuel Carrère

CAST: Juliette Binoche, Hélène Lambert, Léa Carne, Didier Pupin, Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet, Patricia Prieur, Émily Madeleine, Aude Ruyter, Évelyne Porée, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

RUNNING TIME: 106 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: A journalist (Binoche) poses as a minimum-wage cleaner to expose social inequality…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

When tackling important social issues in film, from poverty to racism to unjust systems, it’s important to not just dive further than how it appears on the surface, but to also find an honest and meaningful way to portray it without coming across as condescending or even exploitative. Recent films like Nomadland and I, Daniel Blake have all managed to find the unwavering humanity in social drama while also shedding light on the very real situations being dramatized, but while Between Two Worlds attempts to probe its own investigation into the ultimate struggles of a working-class community, it comes off as less sincere as either of those two earlier examples because, no matter how noble the intentions, it is a very safe and almost condescending feature made for a completely different type of audience than the one it’s trying to depict.

The film, directed and co-written by French novelist Emmanuel Carrère, is loosely based on journalist Florence Aubenas’ non-fiction book The Night Cleaner, wherein she went undercover as a low-wage worker and then wrote about the experiences that she and other minimum-wage employees went through. In the slightly more dramatized film, the journalist – here renamed Marianne Winckler (and played by Juliette Binoche) – similarly implants herself in the world of work-for-hire cleaners in the north-western commune of Caen, befriending other hard-working individuals including single mother Christèle (Hélène Lambert, one of the many non-professional actors in the film) while secretly jotting down parts of their story to use in her own writing.

The core mistake that Carrère’s film makes is to focus more on the investigative journalism aspect of the story rather than the actual working-class community that it depicts. By offering a central perspective that puts Binoche’s Marianne front and centre, who we learn to not only be a rather prolific writer but also appears to live an affluent life back home in Paris, the audience is prevented from truly seeing the hardships that workers like Lambert’s Christèle have to go through day by day, including the pressurised routine of cleaning several ferry bedrooms within an hour and a half timeslot. Instead, it is all seen through the eyes of someone who is there under false pretences, and who can very quickly abandon her undercover position as soon as she’s had enough; that is hardly the most empathetic character you could pick to lead a film like this, especially when her note-taking on some very intimate details from other workers makes her come across as exploitative and self-righteous. The ethical standards that Marianne breaches in the film are certainly addressed, but when more attention is paid to this rather than actually capturing the nitty-gritty of long working hours and imbalanced social lives of the honest workers, then Between Two Worlds completely misses its own point.

You’re almost begging the movie to let other characters like Christèle completely take over, because aside from the fact that they should have been the real focus of this film from the beginning, they are much more interesting and empathetic than Binoche’s privileged protagonist, not to mention far more passionately acted. That isn’t to say that Binoche does a bad job here, because she really doesn’t, but much like in Nomadland it is the non-professional actors such as Hélène Lambert who stand out so much more as naturalistic performers; the only difference is that Frances McDormand’s character in that film at least served to both honour and respect these semi-real figures rather than take away much of their rightful agency. Had Between Two Worlds worked up the decency to restructure itself and make it more about these people and their own familial bonds, rather than let a complete outsider who’s far better off than any of them swoop in and use their stories for her own gain, it would have been a more powerful and far more intriguing story that comes closer to highlighting its own social issues.

Unfortunately, the focus it ends up going with is so awkwardly misguided that it’s a true detriment to the good intentions of Florence Aubenas’ original novel. By simply dipping its toe into the social realist pool instead of just jumping straight in, the film ironically underserves the very people it’s trying way too hard to depict, in a patronising and unintentionally elitist project that manages to look down upon the less fortunate of society rather than fully embracing them as the human beings they actually are. It’s a shame, because there is great potential for an honest movie to be made out of what Aubenas wrote about; the problem is that Between Two Worlds favours the affluent Aubenas more than the working-class folk she originally championed.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Between Two Worlds manages to underserve the working-class system that it sets out to spotlight by placing the central focus on Juliette Binoche’s privileged outsider rather than the honest and hard-working citizens she exploits for her own gain, in an unfortunate example of the wrong perspective being granted to a narrative that really needed a much more grounded and realist focus to truly highlight the social issues at play.

Between Two Worlds is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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