Between Two Worlds (Kino Lorber, NR)

In 2010, French journalist Florence Aubenas posed as an unemployed person to investigate the working conditions of people doing precarious labor (yes, it seems France also fell for the “gig economy” BS). The resulting book, Le quai de Ouistreham (published in English as The Night Cleaner) became an international best seller, cementing Aubenas’ place in the long tradition of female participative journalism, from Nelly Bly to Barbara Ehrenreich.

It’s easy to see why the role of Aubenas would appeal to an actress, and reportedly Emmanuel Carrère’s film Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham) was a passion project for Juliette Binoche. Her character Marianne Winckler, loosely based on Aubenas, presents herself as a job-seeker, undergoes the necessary ritual humiliations of interviews with government functionaries and corporate blood suckers human resource professionals, and ends up working grueling shifts as a cleaner on the ferry between Ouistreham, France, and Portsmouth, England. This gig is the bottom of the line, even for the truly desperate, because the work day is broken into several segments based on the ferry schedule, with unpaid hours in between. There’s also the fact that the cleaners are supposed to take only 90 seconds to change the linen on each bed (that’s including both upper and lower bunks), some people behave disgustingly when they know they won’t have to clean up the mess, and the workers are doing it all for minimum wage.

Binoche is convincing in the role of Marianne, and the screenplay by Carrère and Hèléne Devynck provides her with an interesting cast of supporting characters, most of them played by non-professionals. These include Cédric (Dominique Pupin), a fellow job-seeker who would like to have a relationship with “Marianne,” the young and pretty co-worker Marilou (Léa Carne), and the more hardened Chrystèlè (Hélène Lambert), who is a fierce friend even as she is consumed by the demands of supporting three kids as a single mother. These workers, who are genuinely down on their luck, accept Marianne for what she claims to be, a courtesy they’d be unlikely to receive should the roles be reversed.

All well and good but there’s a structural problem with Between Two Worlds that no amount of acting talent can fix. A book like Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001) works because it shows you the results of her investigation, and in the process explains through the lens of that experience things you probably had not previously realized about the American economy. Ehrenreich (a PhD from Rockefeller University) makes a convincing case for why she needed to play the role of a precarious worker in order to understand, and communicate to a larger audience, what it means to live that life. The point, after all, is not so much the petty insults such workers must endure, but the fact that their entire existence is precarious, with all the vulnerability that implies.

Unfortunately, that sense of necessity is largely missing from Between Two Worlds, which shows us the deception in great detail but elides over the final result (that would be the book) that could make it justifiable. We get some theatrics about the deception, questions about whether Marianne is taking a job from someone who actually needs it, and a half-hearted condemnation about deceiving people to further your own ends, but it all feels dutiful rather than genuine. The conclusion of the film rings entirely false, with the fakest of fake reconciliations interrupted by an equally unconvincing demand to get real. | Sarah Boslaugh

Between Two Worlds is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and digitally by Kino Now, with a street date of September 12.

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