‘Between Two Worlds’ Review: Does Scrubbing Toilets Make Juliette Binoche a Better Actor?

A master of empathy, the French star goes undercover as a cleaning woman in this social-issue movie, about the ethical toll of role-playing.

Between Two Worlds
Christine Tamalet

The nonfiction book that inspired the Juliette Binoche movie “Between Two Worlds” resulted from nearly six months of undercover reporting by Florence Aubenas. The respected French journalist wanted to understand how roughly one-eighth of the country’s workforce — those who rely on non-contract jobs — got by during the recent economic crisis. To observe the situation firsthand, Aubenas moved to the coast, presented herself at employment centers, and tried to get hired, taking practically any gig that was offered — which wasn’t much, and hardly enough to survive on. In the end, she wound up cleaning the ferry out of Ouistreham, describing the experience and those she observed in her book “The Night Cleaner.”

Now, were someone to make a movie of that book, they would almost certainly start by removing Aubenas from the picture. As in American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s similar, celebrated eye-opener “Nickel and Dimed,” the writer’s focus was on the women she met. The obvious solution would be to put those individuals front and center, perhaps to fictionalize their struggles — although Binoche leaned on Aubenas for years about wanting to make a film in which she would play the reporter, and where the act of embedding in that milieu would be the subject. So Aubenas made a suggestion: What if Emmanuel Carrère were the one to adapt it?

Though Carrère has previously directed two films, “Back to Kotelnigh” (a documentary) and “The Moustache” (based on his own novel), he’s better known in France as an author and a nonfiction innovator. He too places himself at the center of his work, taking certain liberties in the process. If Carrère were to tell this story, it would necessarily involve the ethical and emotional struggles Aubenas went through during her research. Instead of simply making “In Cold Blood,” he’d want to do “Capote,” so to speak.

His adaptation would focus on what Aubenas underwent to write her book: the process of relocating from Paris to the northern port city of Caen, of reinventing herself as a down-on-her-luck divorcée, and of slowly gaining the confidence of the women she planned to write about. Binoche was more than game for the kind of self-effacement the role would require, stripping away the beauty makeup that made her a star and a Lancôme spokesmodel. But there’s a different kind of glamour in going undercover, and Carrère and co-writer Hélène Devynck were keen to explore the impulse that drives a journalist to role-play in this way.

Obviously, a version of this book could have been written by being transparent — a fly on the wall, rather than one in the ointment — so why insist on all the subterfuge? It’s a question that an actor would understandably find fascinating, and that takes on a metatextual dimension as Carrère surrounds Binoche with nonprofessional performers: Binoche is playing a journalist (renamed Marianne Winkler here) pretending to need a job. But being unemployed — or barely/badly employed — is her job, as is convincing the women kind enough to show her the ropes that they’re all in the same boat.

Early on, she gets busted by one of the counselors at the local employment agency, which gives Marianne a chance to justify herself: She wants to make these invisible workers visible to the public, she says. But cleaning people are not invisible to everyone, and it speaks to her privilege (and perhaps that of the movie’s target audience) that she thinks so. If the movie, which kicked off the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes, ever finds its way to the U.S., it will find a very different reception there. Americans tend not to share the same interest in social justice stories, embracing more of an “every man for himself” attitude. Someone has to clean toilets, they figure. If you’re going to make those people visible, why not tell a good story in the process?

For Binoche and Carrère, the good story centers on Marianne’s connection to a woman named Christèle (Hélène Lambert), a single mom with three kids, no car and very real risk of being evicted. Marianne means well when she adjusts her book idea to focus on this one woman (an invention for the film, since Aubenas published the “group portrait” that Marianne abandons), but there’s a kind of exploitation involved in the way she mines Christèle’s misery for material.

The movie provides some nice, memorable bonding moments between Marianne and her subjects, including Cédric (nonactor Dominique Pupin), a decent if slightly pathetic middle-aged man also looking for work. But its portrayal of cleaning women ultimately feels flat, and it’s not clear whether watching Binoche scrub a few toilets is meant to dignify/humanize those stuck doing such chores, or to underscore the lengths to which she’ll go as an actor. Filmmakers have been embedding themselves in “invisible” communities for years now — “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao has been a pioneer of this approach — and “Between Two Worlds” feels behind the curve. It’s interesting to know whether Christèle and company felt betrayed by the project, but it’s not enough.

‘Between Two Worlds’ Review: Does Scrubbing Toilets Make Juliette Binoche a Better Actor?

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight — opener), July 7, 2021. Running time: 107 MIN. (Original title: “Ouistreham”)

  • Production: (France) A Memento Distribution (in France) release of a Curiosa Films, Cinéfrance Studios, France 3 Cinéma production, with the participation of France Télévisions, OCS, Canal Plus, in association with La Banque Postale Image 13, Manon 10, France tv distribution, with the support of CNC.(World sales: France tv distribution, Paris.) Producers: Olivier Delbosc, David Gauquié, Julien Deris.
  • Crew: Director: Emmanuel Carrère. Screenplay: Emmanuel Carrère & Hélène Devynck, loosely adapted from “The Night Cleaner” by Florence Aubenas. Camera: Patrick Blossier. Editor: Albertine Lastera. Music: Mathieu Lamboley.
  • With: Juliette Binoche, Hélène Lambert, Léa Carne, Emily Madeleine, Patricia Prieur, Evelyne Porée, Didier Pupin.