In the week that Sue Gray’s report offered unsavory details of the treatment of Downing Street menial staff at the hands of the bilious cretins behind Partygate comes an incidentally topical film that examines the parlous existence of non-contracted cleaning staff in France. Adapted from undercover journalist Florence Aubenas‘ essay ‘The Night Cleaner’, the film retains the focus of reportage. It’s unfortunately a misguided narrative perspective that keeps its ostensible subject at a safe distance over the chasm of the class divide.

Writer Marianne Winckler (Juliette Binoche) goes undercover as a welfare claimant now looking for work due to the breakup of a marriage leaving her in a worrisome financial state. Her job centre agent tells her rather bluntly that her best option is ‘maintenance agent’, or rather, cleaner. Eventually Marianne finds herself working the Ouistreham ferry, cleaning the rooms between crossings from Caen to Portsmouth. It’s backbreaking work, but Marianne meets the stoic, forthright Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), a single mother long ago sucked into the clutches of the gig economy. The two form a bond, but of course, Marianne can get out of this situation any time she likes.

Movie royalty Binoche is the driving force behind this film. Surrounding herself with non-actors and stripped of all movie star accoutrements, it’s acting as abasement. The effect is similar to Chloé Zhao‘s Nomadland, which despite its acclaim, never clears the distance between an A-list star and its backing cast of genuine off-grid outsiders. Are we genuinely getting an insight into the precarious existence of these non-contracted workers, or are we applauding Binoche’s willingness to scrub a loo with an air of panda-eyed exhaustion?

To be fair, Binoche is her usual compelling self, and she’s more than matched by the extraordinary Lambert. If there is any authenticity in Between Two Worlds, it is to be found in her formidable bearing, the last vestiges of her pride calcified to armour. Director Carrère’s rather Loachian aesthetic also manages to relay the essence of a grim shift on board the Ouistreham ferry where the cleaners are expected to clean 230 rooms at a rate of one every four minutes.

But the issue of the narrative perspective remains. It is undoubtedly true that the knowledge of Marianne’s status as a mole provides the story’s dramatic tension. Given Chrystèle’s mercurial temper, she’s unlikely to take the revelation that the foundation of their friendship is shifting sand well. It is also undoubtedly true that Marianne’s privileged position, and more importantly her privileged voice, is the dominant one. This puts the viewer at an essential remove from the subject, as if we’re looking at the (predominantly) women stuck in this drudgery through safety glass.

It’s hard to come to any other conclusion than to lay this at the feet of Binoche. Many a nun would warn that excessive mortification is a type of pride in itself, and it appears that there’s a sense of vanity at work in the actor attempting to demonstrate a lack of vanity. The film would arguably have functioned better with the voice of privilege removed. Films based on journalism can be great – Hustlers is a recent example – but it’s often best to let the subject speak for itself, as that film does admirably. In the case of Between Two Worlds, the method of storytelling invites curiosity and pity rather than genuine empathy, and while Marianne faces consequences, it also takes pains to let her off the hook.

At Filmhouse, Edinburgh until Thu 2 Jun 2022