Wie im echten Leben / Between Two Worlds

Director: Emmanuel Carrère (France). Year of Release: 2022

A Job Centre / social security office in Caen. The woman at the counter is telling a man that he needs to go online to delete his e-mail address. He explains patiently that he can’t afford an internet connection. An agitated woman tries to push in. She’s just received a letter informing her that her benefits have been stopped because a form she needs to fill in never arrived. She tells the woman at the counter that she delivered the form personally to this office, to that woman.

Meanwhile, Marianne is trying to get a job, any job. She explains that she’s been doing the bookkeeping for her husband’s company, but since she found him in bed with the neighbour that’s not really an option. She’s moved to Caen exactly because no-one knows her here. The job centre worker tells her that with her empty CV the only job she can expect is cleaning. “I’ll take it”, says Marianne. Actually, says the worker, they have to take you.

Marianne finds an agency to organise work for her cleaning some holiday homes. It’s hard work, badly paid, and not respected. The two women in charge of the holiday homes don’t like the look of her and complain to the boss, who sacks her on her first day. She’s met Chrystèle who’s cleaning the ferries at the nearby port of Ouistreham. Chrystèle is walking an hour to the ferry every morning, so Marianne offers her a lift if she can get her an interview.

At this point – about half an hour in – we have what would be a plot spoiler, if it weren’t in pretty much all information advertising the film. If you don’t want to know anything in advance, go and see the film now, as the rest of the plot depends on this twist and It will be difficult to assess whether the film is Any Good without mentioning how well (or not) it deals with this. Anyone who’s fine with knowing this is welcome to accompany me to the remaining paragraphs.

Back at the job centre, one of the employees tells Marianne that she recognises her – of course she does, she read her best selling book. What is Marianne up to now? Marianne confesses that she’s writing a Gunther Walraff / Barbara Ehrenreich-type exposé of working conditions for cleaning workers. She doesn’t intend to steal anyone’s job – the moment she is offered a proper contract she’ll give up, but until then, she’ll take any work that’s offered to her.

Knowing that this is what the film would be about, I had a number of misgivings before going to see it. The main one was a fear that the film would not be about the workers, but about the brave reporter who’s slumming it for a while. This is a reasonable assumption, given as Marianne is played by Juliette Binoche, one of the most iconic actors of her generation. How could the film not be primarily about her?

Indeed, a number of reviews – generally by writers who are happy to pass off vacuous middle dinner party conversations as ground breaking cinema – have complained that this film doesn’t show the real hardships suffered by cleaning workers. Well, I don’t know what film they saw, but the one I just watched definitely did. Sure there is a degree of focus on Binoche, but she ably fades into the background and lets the other non-professional actors enact well-rounded characters.

We follow Marianne, and her new friends Chrystèle and Marilou through their gruelling day. They have 1½ hours to clean the full ferry – that’s 120 bedrooms at 4 minutes per room. Cleaning the unflushed toilets full of shit and vomit is the most disgusting work, but the most debilitating is the repetitive work changing the beds, which causes searing pain throughout your muscles.

The second worry I had before seeing the film was that it would play on the trope of the radical investigative journalist without mentioning the contradictory nature of her work. Of necessity, Marianne is asking questions of her new friends, not primarily because she is interested in them as people, but to provide information for her book. We see Marianne in the evening writing up the intimate confessions her friends have been making about their lives. It all feels a bit shabby.

And yet, real friendships are being built, especially when Marianne, Chrystèle and Marilou get trapped on the ferry en route to Portsmouth. They hide out in a first class cabin, and raid the mini-bar, experiencing at lifestyle that is unfamiliar to at least 2 of them. Avoiding the risk of coming across as too sentimental, the film shows rather than tells how Chrystèle and Marilou’s lives contain just as much worth as their journalist friend, even if they lack her opportunities.

I found the film to be full of righteous anger, but not afraid to depict the contradictions of particularly Marianne’s choices. In a scene towards the end, she shows herself to be possibly a little more self-serving than we’d thought. At the very least, we see that she comes from a world to which she can return at any time. We start to doubt how much her book can really change. This makes us like her a little less, but enjoy the film a little more.

What looks like it is going to be either a didactic or an unnecessary sentimental film turns out to be neither. Maybe I just caught it on a good day, but I was pleasantly surprized that it more than delivered on its promise.

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