An affluent French writer infiltrates the blue collar lives of the working class in Caen in Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham), a well-played, well-intentioned new drama from director Emmanuel Carrère that premiered at Cannes before screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Juliette Binoche plays the writer, Marianne Winckler, who begins the film at Caen’s unemployment office seeking work. “There’s a 23-year gap in your employment history,” her caseworker notes. Marianne responds that she had been a housewife to a rich husband, who left her for a younger lover.
Willing to take any job, Marianne quickly picks up the basics at a cleaning company that sends their staff to various jobs around the city. Soon, she delves into what everyone tells her is the most demanding job: cleaning out the large cruise ship at the Ouistreham port each night, before it transports guests to the UK the following morning.
Between Two Worlds doesn’t have a lot to say about the cleaning industry, but provides a nice procedural-like overview of how the business operates. It’s demanding work, requires quick turnaround, and is predominantly staffed by women. But there’s also a Zen-like satisfaction in some of the repetitive tasks; this is showcased in one scene featuring Marilou (Léa Carne), who has mastered the “American” style of wiping windows.
Beyond the cleaning industry specifics, Between Two Worlds works best when showcasing the daily lives of the woman involved in it: notably Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), who we first meet shouting at her caseworker in the unemployment office, and then come to know as Marianne develops a close relationship with her and her two young sons.
Apart from Binoche, all the characters involved in the cleaning industry in Between Two Worlds are portrayed by non-professional actors. This adds greatly to the film’s feeling of authenticity, and Lambert, especially, is a standout.
Between Two Worlds is based on the novel Le Quai de Ouistreham by French journalist and author Florence Aubenas, who actually did go undercover within the cleaning industry in Caen to discover details about the working-class lives. On the page, in a real-world exposé, this adds some genuine credibility to the author’s experiences.
In a fictional three-act movie, meanwhile, it’s a huge problem. Between Two Worlds is yet another movie about a writer who is writing about a fascinating subject, rather than the fascinating subject itself.
This film would have been so much more interesting if it had focused solely on the lives of the women in the Caen cleaning industry, rather than the life of the affluent woman who wrote about the women. Still, a good half of Between Two Worlds is genuinely interesting, and the cast of non-professionals adds greatly to the experience of watching the film.