Based on French journalist Florence Aubenas’s bestselling non-fiction book, The Night Cleaner, in which she investigated the rising disparity and disconnect within French society through her experiences in the port city of Caen, Between Two Worlds casts Juliette Binoche in the role of a famed author named Marianne, who goes undercover as a professional cleaner to explore the exploitation of the working class in Northern France. She starts out cleaning homes and offices while making friends with other cleaners, most especially Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), a single mother who opens up her life to Marianne and gives her real insight into the role that cleaning crews play in French society.
Eventually through Chrystèle, Marianne gets hired as part of a crew aboard the cross-channel ferry, which many refer to as the hardest cleaning gig in the country; others call the work a “commando operation,” during which the crew must clean 230 rooms, twice per day, giving them about two minutes per room each time it’s cleaned. Going through this experience and getting pretty good at her job, Marianne begins to make some of her closest friendships during this experience, and we are simply counting down the minutes until she is discovered for being a well-off, celebrated writer and the fallout begins
Between Two Worlds marks a return for director Emmanuel Carrère, who hasn’t made a film since the extraordinary 2008 work The Moustache. Carrère has spent most of that intervening time becoming a world-renowned nonfiction author, but the return to moviemaking is much appreciated, with a complicated and layered work such as this. Marianne believes the work she’s doing will draw attention to the plight of these workers and perhaps result in better working conditions for them. But she’s also been lying to them, which isn’t the best way to build a friendship. Most of the actors in the film are first-time performers who actually do this work for a living, and several of them are quite memorable, including Didier Pupion as Cedric, a man who skillfully attempts to woo Marianne and ends up becoming one of her most trusted comrades.
As one would expect, Binoche’s performance here is exceptional, selling the fact that this work is beyond difficult for someone who has likely never worked this hard in her life while also being just a bit distant from even her closest new friends. She’s apart from them while also trying to be one of them, and a couple key characters guess her secret but don’t out her when they could. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the other workers admire what she’s attempting to do on their behalf, but it’s not an easy game guessed in advance who that might be. The film is rich with characterizations, and I was genuinely sorry to leave this world and these people when it was time for Marianne to move on.