I first became interested in the artistry of Emmanuel Carrère through his 2018 genre-disintegrating novel The Kingdom. The book offered something completely original: an astute history of the earliest Christians filtered through the memoir of one of the French language’s great contemporary prose masters as he, now agnostic, reflects on his three years as a committed religious person. Describing it for what it is makes the whole thing come off a bit facetious or perhaps trivial, but Carrère avoids the trappings he must and transgresses the ones he shouldn’t—synthesizing into something singular. Some critics even dare call it The Confessions of the twenty-first century.
After a long history of adapting his written work into successful screenplays (Class Trip, The Adversary), Carrère stepped into the director’s chair for his first feature with 2005’s The Moustache. Based on his book of the same name, a man spontaneously shaves the moustache he has donned for the greater portion of his adult life—and, just as he does so, everyone around him claims he never had a ‘stache in the first place. Although I haven’t read the novel, the film feels like what a Michael Haneke film would look like had it been written by Slavoj Žižek. (If that doesn’t sound like a great date night movie, I don’t know what would.) Comedically stylish, thematically ambitious, and daringly psychoanalytic, The Moustache set a high bar for the first-time director—a bar that he wouldn’t even attempt to clear until over 15 years later with 2021’s Between Two Worlds, which is confusingly just now receiving its US release.
Juliette Binoche leads a cast of non-actors brilliantly as Marianne Winckler, a successful author working undercover for a new book project as a cleaner amongst poor working-class women and men in Northern France. With the book, she hopes to bring awareness and change to the working conditions and to explore the cycle of unemployment and instability that characterizes the lives of the poor French. Naturally, as undercover stories naturally fall into the course of providence, Marianne’s real life collides with the lie she is living to write the new book.
Unlike Carrère’s first feature film as a director, Between Two Worlds is not based on one of his books; Florence Aubenas’s non-fiction The Night Cleaner—the actual product of the same sort of work Winckler is doing—technically works as the very basic source material, although Between is both fictionalized and dramatized. The decision to use non-actors helps create the disparity between Marianne and her co-workers: Binoche’s Marianne is more polished and lacks the resignation of the truly materially impoverished. As normal people, the cleaning crew are plainer in appearance than the world-class actor—and with the exception of one hyper-romantic man, they all play their roles with the usual detachment of non-actors that comes so naturally to people who actually know the scars and wounds of the real-world.
The working conditions are shit, of course. Impossibly long hours, cruel bosses, pitiful pay, and unreasonable cleaning jobs are more the norm than the exception. Yet, in this mess, the wealthy Winckler witnesses class solidarity and discovers that poor people live lives too, even if leisure activity is a luxury often not afforded. They loan one another cars, help one another secure jobs, and even aid each other in navigating money-saving solutions to their problems. Binoche’s character specially bonds with Christèle Thomassin (Hélène Lambert), a single mother who regularly works 18-hour days, and the much younger Marilou (Léa Carne)—both of whom regularly work the most difficult cleaning job on the ferry service between Ouistreham and Portsmouth. (Ouistreham is the film’s French title.) Appropriately, Patrick Blossier’s camera (The Moustache, Vagabond) comes from a more social-realist tradition than his more stylized 2005 collaboration with Carrère.
Class solidarity defines the relationships between the workers—and the revelation of Marianne’s true economic situation threatens this. A short and simple repetitive theme in Mathieu Lamboley’s score—and a handful of ancillary comments that make misogyny or racism clear in these spaces—is the only thing that might suggest anything at all about the cyclical nature of poverty. The repeating electric theme is also the biggest break from the generally invisible style of Between Two Worlds.
Emmanuel Carrère might not fully clear the bar he set with his first feature, but he does prove himself a flexible filmmaker, able to adapt his style to the individual project. Let’s just hope he doesn’t wait another 15 years to test this flexibility.
Between Two Worlds
dir. Emmanuel Carrère
Now playing @ Kendall Square Cinema