Novelist and film-maker Emmanuel Carrère has contrived this earnestly intentioned but naive and supercilious drama about poverty and the gig economy, starring a tearful Juliette Binoche. It is adapted from the French non-fiction bestseller Le Quai de Ouistreham from 2010 by investigative journalist Florence Aubenas, published in the UK under the title The Night Cleaner.
In it, Aubenas describes her experiences “going undercover” and working in the brutal world of cleaning in Caen in northern France, where desperate applicants have to burnish their CVs with fatuous assurances about how passionate they are about cleaning, in return for dehumanising work with pitiful pay, grisly conditions and no job security. The grimmest part of the work is scrubbing lavatories and cleaning cabins on the ferry between Ouistreham and Portsmouth. The book is in the undercover tradition of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain.
Perhaps what might have been valuable would have been a documentary fronted by Aubenas herself, about what has and hasn’t been achieved for gig workers in France since her book came out – or, arguably, a Loachian fiction based on the real lives of these workers. What Carrère has done is create a drama in which it is the fictionalised Aubenas who is the centre of an imagined gallery of toughly courageous workers – her new best friends. The real dramatic crisis comes with Aubenas’s awful dilemma when she has to confess to them she has been fibbing all this time, and using their lives as raw material for her book, which she will write as soon as she returns to her wealthy and fashionable life in Paris. Some of her soon-to-be-jettisoned pals will forgive her when they see how important her book is. Some may not.
Despite this unbearably obtuse and self-important emotional finale, there is some eye-opening material about the gig workers’ lives and some nice performances. And, of course, the issue of whether such journalism is delusional or parasitic is a perfectly valid one. (It is part of the comic point of Preston Sturges’s 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels, about the movie director who announces that he will live as a hobo to make his earnest magnum opus O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
Yet Binoche’s character never herself reflects that the lived experience of this kind of work is brutal because of the knowledge that this is all you have: the undercover journalist knows that he or she can return to a comfortable life reasonably soon – a life made even more comfortable by a potential bestseller (and film deal).
The film finally behaves as if the journalist’s drama is as important as its ostensible subject, the injustice of exploitative employment practices, and doesn’t even investigate that issue thoroughly. Aubenas’s real life in Paris may well have had all sorts of crises and complications in which things were personally at stake for her, but they don’t feature here. Neither of the two worlds of the film’s English title is illuminated clearly enough.
Between Two Worlds (Le Quai de Ouistreham) is screening at the 2021 Cannes film festival