You can see the ending coming, and it’s going to be messy, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of Emmanuel Carrère’s “Between Two Worlds” starring Juliette Binoche as a writer who goes deep undercover posing as an impoverished cleaning lady as research for her new novel. Based on the international bestseller “The Night Cleaner” by Florence Aubenas, the French drama sheds light on the working class struggling to stay above the poverty line. Genuine performances by the terrific cast (a majority of which are non-actors) help drive the message home.

Hélène Lambert plays Christèle, a single mother with three kids who does not know how she is going to feed them. She’s off welfare and about to lose her benefits thanks to a mix-up at the Pôle Emploi, the agency run by the French government that helps unemployed citizens find jobs while providing them with financial aid. Lambert is one of the many non-actors cast for the film, yet you wouldn’t know it. Her performance is on the same level as Binoche’s which is a testament to the famous French actor who worked with the cast during the shoot.

In the opening scene, Christèle walks with determination towards the unemployment agency, her stride foretells a confrontation, as Mathieu Lambole’s wonderful swirling score plays in the background. In this case, however, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” would be an appropriate substitution as the mother of three engages with a case worker at the agency, upset that she’s about to lose her aid because of the Pôle Emploi’s mishandling of her documents. “Do you have kids?” the flustered Christèle asks the case worker. “No, I don’t” she replies and then attempts to brush off the now angry mother. As the scene escalates, the Agency Director steps in to diffuse the situation by telling Christèle he’ll deal with her file directly. She responds, “You’re all useless!”

Marianne Winckler (Binoche) witnessed Christèle’s outburst while waiting at the agency in the hope of finding a job. Their lives are about to intersect and the two will eventually become close friends. While being interviewed by the case worker, Marianne explains that her husband left her and now she must start all over. It’s been twenty years since she’s been in the workforce and Marianne states that she’ll take any job, but it’s not that easy. Because of the recession, jobs are scarce and even a toilet cleaner must be accepted by the employer.

After a quick coaching session, Marianne attends a job fair where she meets the charming Cedric (Didier Pupin), who’s unemployed and single. He makes the first move by sparking up a conversation. Cedric is a gentle soul whose demeanor can make anyone feel at ease in an instant. The two look over each other’s resume. Cedric points out that a 20-year absence from the workforce doesn’t look good for Marianne. She quickly points out that his document also contains flaws while questioning his work history, specifically as an “Ambiance agent for green spaces.” Cedric comments it’s a “bit of a joke” plus it adds a line on the resume application, revealing his sense of humor.

Pupin is also a non-actor whose terrific performance as Cedric leads to pockets of delight in Carrère’s feature, the scenes with Binoche are a welcomed respite from the trenches of the working class.

Marianne offers clues that she is not who she seems. First, she’s very inquisitive, asking tons of questions to everyone she meets. Sure, Marianne has been out of touch for two decades so it’s understandable that someone in that position would have a lot of questions, but her method is that of an interviewer compiling data (and she is), not someone who is trying to figure out how to benefit their situation. Also, the desperation that we witnessed in Christèle, and to a smaller degree with Cedric, is missing.

Of course, Marianne is really a writer who is working on a new novel about the struggling working class. To fully understand their plight, she leaves her comfortable life in Paris and moves to Caen, located about two hours away from her home and ten minutes away from the coast. She doesn’t know anyone in the city and as a rule, vows to have no contact with her life in Paris, which includes phone, email, and Skype. Going deep undercover means Marianne is off the grid, she didn’t tell anyone where she was going.

Binoche in essence is playing investigative journalist Florence Aubenas whose book “The Night Cleaner” provides the basis for “Between Two Worlds” which became an instant best seller when published in 2010. Aubenas went undercover cover to see what it was like to be unemployed during the worst recession since the Great Depression. She moved to a new city with no connections to people leaving her old life behind. Her experience chronicled in the novel describes what it’s like living life on the edge of poverty.

For the film, Carrère and screenwriter Hélène Devynck, decided to move away from Aubenas’ novel to gravitate to a more intimate setting focusing on a close bond between Binoche’s Marianne and Christèle as well as Cedric. The book details how Aubenas, in true investigative reporter style, never crossed the line to develop a personal relationship. Marianne crosses the line and then some as she befriends Christèle and her children posing an interesting dilemma. How far do you go with the ruse knowing that you can help these people in some small way? Also, how will they react when the truth is unveiled?

Over the course of the film, we witness many acts of generosity towards Marianne. She’s gifted a used car to help her acquire and keep a job. She then befriends Christèle, offering her rides to work, who in return helps Marianne land a gig working with her on a passenger ferry’s cleaning crew. They have 90 minutes to perform housekeeping duties including cleaning the cabins’ toilets and changing the bed sheets while the ship is docked.

The camaraderie that Aubenas speaks of in her novel is on display in the film. The viewer remains enthralled by the story’s premise, watching and scrutinizing Marianne’s every move. The cast is terrific, especially newcomer Hélène Lambert who takes precedence in the final act as Christèle and Marianne’s worlds clash in one revealing moment.

At first, it seems that Carrère attempts to tidy the mess left by the fallout too easily which would have been an injustice to the film. However, the filmmaker who took an 18-year break from directing, leaves the viewer with a final shot that lingers long after leaving the theater.

For many years, Aubenas refused to let her novel get a big-screen adaptation. It was Juliette Binoche’s persistence that helped her get the passion project made. It was the author’s suggestion to get Emmanuel Carrère involved even though his last film (“The Moustache”) was released in 2005. “Between Two Worlds” offers no solutions but delivers a reminder that regardless of our placement in the hierarchical social stratum, we are all the same. It also calls for respect for those working from paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet. And finally, the film gives fans of cinema a chance to enjoy another excellent performance by Juliette Binoche.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as part of their ongoing series Magnolia at the Modern which spotlights critically acclaimed films. The film will be available PVOD on Tuesday, September 12.

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