Two recent films and one slightly older book came to mind while watching the 2021 French film Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham, directed by Emmanuel Carrère and starring Juliette Binoche). Ruben Östlund’s 2022 comedy-drama Triangle of Sadness and John Patton Ford’s debut feature from the same year, Emily the Criminal, emerged into my psyche while I was watching, but what immediately lept foremost to mind was the 2001 best-selling book Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Between Two Worlds is loosely based on a French book with analogous themes, Florence Aubena’s autobiographical best-seller The Night Cleaner (Le Quai de Ouistreham).
Triangle of Sadness most closely parallels the premise of Between Two Worlds, as both films center on issues facing cleaners on passenger ships. Therein lies their main shared likeness, but the plots of the two films diverge sharply. In Triangle of Sadness, the overarching theme concerns the balance of power and how that power can become inverted through disaster. When the survivors of a cruise ship crash are marooned on an island, it turns out that the theretofore “invisible” cleaning lady has sturdier survival skills than the bourgeois passengers, whose privilege has largely bulwarked them against more “primitive” threats. Emily the Criminal, conversely, is a dark take on the gig economy and delves into how desperation might push an otherwise honest person toward illicit activities.
Between Two Worlds is neither savagely satirical like Triangle of Sadness nor as forebodingly cynical as Emily the Criminal. On the contrary, the film is soft around the edges. It is a quietly intense affair that provokes thought and compassion but also some moral reckoning. After all, as one of the characters says about the protagonist’s endeavors to go undercover as a cleaning lady on a ferry to research her book about Northern France’s employment crisis, “I can’t decide if what you are doing is right or wrong.”
This thought nagged me as I watched Between Two Worlds for the second time – and I don’t mean feeling conflicted about the story itself. Rather, I felt ethical quandaries about the execution of the film. After all, Between Two Worlds features an internationally renowned actress among a cast of non-actors. That is, of course, a great marketing device, and it lured me into watching it as much as the plot description did. Juliette Binoche was persistently keen on doing this film, and doubtless, she feels passionate about the subject matter. And the acting from the non-actors is sublime, not at all obviously amateur.
Binoche, as Marianne, is ever a shimmering force and infuses her role with humility and charm. But it’s Hélène Lambert, with her portrayal of Christèle, who steals the show. Lambert inhabits Christèle with raw authenticity. She is, by turns, gentle and fierce, evincing a nuanced metamorphosis of character as she and Binoche’s Marianne form a soulful bond.
There are standout scenes of humanizing verisimilitude and true pathos. These are workers who, after all, do low-paying, thankless, brutally backbreaking work, and most are women. In one scene, where the crew of cleaners goes bowling, the characters discuss their tattoos and their dreams of striking it rich. It’s a lighthearted scene that doubles as a way for viewers to empathize with their lives and struggles. In another scene, the crew holds a farewell party for one of their departing members, who is off to take on a modeling job. This scene allows us a glimpse into the heartening camaraderie that can be formed among workers, as well as provides further insight into the hopes and aspirations of the cleaners.
In Nickle and Dimed, where Ehrenreich takes on low-wage labor to deeply understand the plight of the working class as far as affording basic food and shelter, the goal is clear: to expose the exploitive aspects of capitalism. In the press materials description of Aubenas’ The Night Cleaners, the author was “determined to find out what it means to be unemployed in the midst of a recession.”
Between Two Worlds addresses these problems of the working poor, but by the end, which happens rather abruptly, Binoche’s character has gone back to her real life as a comfortable writer, basking in the praise at a book signing event. While the book she writes from her experience is meant to enlighten and educate the more privileged masses who have the means to read it – itself an activist gesture – Between Two World‘s ending seems condescending to those “exploited for their stories”, if you will, the working poor. This casts a pall over an otherwise engaging and calmly compelling film. But that’s the point.
The unemployment and poverty-wage crisis is global and ongoing. Between Two Worlds and other works shine a necessary light on these tragic realities. While this film does not question the dark side of capitalism or impel viewers to action, what it does do beautifully is celebrate the indomitable spirit of workers – those of us who stand in the shadows together while the rest bask in the glow of their materialistic pleasures.