Saturday, May 28, 2022

Between Two Worlds – Exposing the unseen gig economy or exploiting the exploited? (QFT until 2 June)

Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham) could have been a Ken Loach/I, Daniel Blake style exposé of the French social security system, unpicking the heartless bureaucracy of benefits processes, the draconian working conditions sustained by the service sector, and the hard underpaid graft of people who live below the bread line.

Instead the film remains true to the book from which it is adapted, the culmination of journalist and author Florence Aubenas’ six months working and observing the economic crisis through the lives of cleaners in the port of Caen.

Between Two Worlds could really be retitled “Betraying Two Worlds”.

The film’s protagonist Marianne Winckler is quickly recognised by job centre worker who continues to place her in jobs withing the cleaning industry, turning a blind eye to her investigative subterfuge.

We hear internal monologues as Winckler runs over how she will describe situations in her manuscript. Her intention is to expose the low paid, exploited, gig economy underclass to a French society and political system that ignores what it cannot see.

But will she make a difference? Will she end up writing ‘poverty porn’? Will she damage those who innocently take her under their wing and teach how to clean toilets and freshen up ferry cabins (four minutes per cabin to change the bedlinen, scrub and clean).

While the final shot of the correctly focuses in on the real stars of the film, a dark ethical cloud hangs over the screenplay throughout the 106 minutes as the camera stays trained on Winckler (played by Juliette Binoche) as she becomes more and more entwined in the lives of colleagues like Christèle (Hélène Lambert), Marilou (Léa Carne), and the flirting, wheel-changing Cédric (Didier Pupin). They don’t realise that their acts of generosity towards Winckler are ultimately feeding her book royalties rather than nourishing honest relationships. The journalist sellotapes receipts into her notebook to claim back as expenses while her co-workers scrimp and save to contribute towards petrol or buy her a birthday present.

The betrayal ultimately overshadows the dodgy practices and ill-rewarded work that the author intended to spotlight. The film’s lesson is that the ethics of undercover investigations cannot be ignored. Observing from the inside inevitably exploits those who are being observed. The film awkwardly acknowledges that once the ruse is discovered and the book is published, Winckler’s friendship with the resilient and big-hearted women she spent months living and working with is now one of choice and not necessity. She may wish to be friends for life, but her old colleagues are as trapped in their realm of poverty as Winckler is trapped in her own more privileged yet not untroubled world.

Binoche’s performance as a mature divorced ingénue is matched by the non-professional cast around her, women who have done the jobs they’re acting out on screen.

The exploitation of workers by those hiring the cleaners deserves top-billing but the author telling their story holds the reins of power. The English title for the film works, and that failure is perhaps inevitable given director Emmanuel Carrère’s decision to retain the framing of the original book. That said, it’s still an intriguing film to watch and mull over as you leave the theatre. But I doubt it will make your eyes weep and your heart grieve in the same way Ken Loach could manage.

Between Two Worlds is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until 2 June.

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