Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds offers a welcome corrective to the patronising poverty porn of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, stars non-professional actor and real-life rodeo Brady Jandreau in the titular role, and is shaped around his performance — which is another way of saying that it is shaped around his life. Jandreau essentially plays himself and tells a dramatised version of his own story, that of a rodeo whose rising star came crashing down when a bad fall seemed to mark the end of his career and dreams.
The approach is therefore rather confrontational. The viewer is faced with a largely silent protagonist, living in a world likely to be unfamiliar to most and which, despite Zhao’s choice to shoot almost exclusively during magic hour, is also undeniably dangerous and scary. The feeling when watching the film is one of cautious curiosity, as the audience observes a life and a world with very specific rules, forced to be patient in order to try and understand them.
Zhao’s next effort, the Best Picture winner Nomadland, seems remarkably similar on the surface. Once again, the Chinese director turns her camera to non-actors living on the margins of society, their lifestyle far beyond the mainstream and their existence fraught with a constant sense of danger. After the “Indian Cowboys” (as they call themselves) of the Pine Ridge Reservation in The Rider, Zhao here chooses to focus on American nomads who have chosen to live in vans, never staying in the same place for long. But the golden light of the magic hour and the vast desert landscapes are still here, as is the haptic and atmospheric cinematography mastered by Zhao and her regular collaborator Joshua James Richards.
Yet in its approach to the world it is peering into and to its lead character, Nomadland differs so wildly from The Rider as to stand in almost exact contradiction to it. The confrontation and low-level danger that so permeated the latter hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is confused and muddled by a cloying sentimentality rising from the position of its lead character as a sort of way-in for the viewer.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who has only recently decided to start living on the road. Following the death of her husband and the quick disintegration of their town after the closing of the plant where she used to work, she wasn’t entirely destitute, but she had no reason to stay. Through her travels and the seasonal jobs she takes on, the film offers glimpses into this particular lifestyle on the edges of American society, with appearances from non-professional actors who, for the most part, do not play themselves but simply are themselves. All are interesting characters deserving of their own film, but acting opposite them, McDormand delivers a shockingly self-conscious performance and sticks out like a sore thumb.
Part of the blame definitely falls on the three-time Best Actress Oscar winner, for choosing to play the cliché of the “simple woman living a simple life” rather than an actual person. Zhao herself could also be held responsible for choosing to cast professional actors at all — but this argument quickly falls apart when considering the unaffected, truthful and extremely touching turn from David Strathairn in the role of a potential love interest.
The root of the problem lies in the positioning of McDormand’s Fern as a character who will show us the ins and outs of this world while she gets the hang of it herself. The issue would have been the same had she been “played” by a non-professional actor: although the performance would have no doubt been less mannered, the “oohs” and “ahhs” less frequent, and the gazing at the horizon more convincing, viewers still would have been led by the hand into an “exotic” and precarious world, taking in just a bit of its flavour from a relatively safe distance.
The defence that this is new territory for Fern, too, is feeble — after all, this woman already had a precarious lifestyle before. She quite literally lost everything when her husband passed away and the factory closed down. Fern has never been safe, and so it doesn’t feel right that she would act, indeed, like a tourist among the other nomads she meets. Her happy-go-lucky attitude and her constant awe also feel incongruous in a person who has known hardship all her life, and seem more in line with the attitude of a polite visitor than something that would come down to a sunny personality alone.
Both Fern, a stand-in for the audience, and the film itself thus approach the people she meets with pity and morbid curiosity, a melange familiar from the kind of cinema referred to as “poverty porn.” Although this patronising and insulting perspective remains shockingly prevalent and accepted in cinema, it does feel particularly jarring here, in large part because these nomads are not really struggling at all and therefore do not appear to deserve any pity. But it is most evident because of the presence of Fern, herself the material embodiment of this perverse and patronising attitude.
By all accounts, many of the non-professional, first-time actors in Nomadland did not realise that McDormand was not in fact a van-dwelling widow, but an Oscar-winning actress. What may come across to some as a great method acting anecdote, testament to the star’s talent and to her dedicated search for “authenticity,” takes on a more sinister aura when watching the film, as Fern appears to be as much of a tourist as McDormand herself.
Emmanuel Carrère’s Between Two Worlds essentially imagines what would happen if Fern was actually found out to be a famous Hollywood actress. In the film, Juliette Binoche plays Marriane, a writer living a comfortable, intellectual Parisian life who decides to go undercover working as a cleaner. She wants to witness from the inside how the struggling French working class really live, in order to write the definitive book about it, demystifying and putting faces on what to many are mere statistics used by politicians in election campaigns (incredibly, this actually happened: the film is based on the 2010 book Le Quai de Ouistreham by French journalist Florence Aubenas).
Binoche’s generally positive attitude and her wide-eyed awe at the way her new unemployed friends or colleagues go about their lives eerily recall McDormand’s Fern. She seems almost happy to be at a job centre, filling in a form so that she may find a job as a cleaner. Later, when meeting with potential employers, she acts like someone who would be glad to be given work, but not particularly fussed either way. Her sunny attitude charms an unemployed man she meets called Steve (Steve Papagiannis), himself also a positive person, but someone whose calm outlook appears to come from humble resignation rather than from the thrill of novelty.
At the opposite end of the chill scale is Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert), first seen shouting at an employee of the job centre about an appointment. As the film progresses and the two women become close, this mother of two is revealed to be someone who would rather stay angsty than accept the borderline inhumane conditions of her work, the way many of her colleagues do. Of all the people Marianne meets, she most closely resembles a Ken Loach character, and the writer unsurprisingly decides to make her the focus of her book.
But unlike Nomadland, Between Two Worlds is careful not to align itself to the patronising perspective of its main protagonist. Binoche, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, probably could play an “ordinary woman” without standing out from the non-professional cast. Here however, she plays a bourgeois liar, and her performance is in equal parts bone-chilling and exhilarating as she tightropes between genuine emotion and conspicuous, forced pretending. Although we are on this rollercoaster with her, Carrère does not particularly want her subterfuge to succeed, his filmmaking always carefully bringing out the relation of equality that exists between all the workers but which she cannot see. Binoche is frequently framed as part of a group — among the other students learning how to use a big floor-cleaning machine; as one half of a duo hired to clean a bunch of summer bungalows; or as one amongst many in a team tasked with cleaning and changing the sheets in the bedrooms of an overnight ferry.
Carrère’s camera has a democratising, equalising effect that Marianne’s own words, heard in voiceover as she writes her book in her flat at the end of her shifts, simply does not have. Her writing points out the difficulty of the work, which is undeniable, but also tends to turn her colleagues into martyrs and heroes that they did not choose to become. Moreover, she does not get at the terrible banality and tedium of the job the way Carrère does: his short observational takes, highlighting the physicality involved — in unclogging a toilet, removing bed sheets, sweeping the floor — are assembled in a kind of violent editing that cuts forward through time, suggesting both the mindless repetition of the tasks and a race against the clock that leaves no time for any thought at all. An exotic playground this is not.
As Marianne becomes friends with Chrystèle, she becomes more and more uncomfortable with her own lies, but never enough to make her abandon her book project. From then on, it would appear as though the film was a classic undercover story, where the cop begins to have second thoughts about the mission. But Marianne’s betrayal is so great, her blindness so evident and shocking, that it is impossible to take that route and be on her side. Like in Who You Think I Am, in which Binoche played a woman who catfished a young man on Facebook, Marianne here is simply delusional and while we may feel for her, we are most of all horrified by what she has done.
Between Two Worlds very literally shows that, if we were to describe the daily grind of the less fortunate as noble self-sacrifice and to explore their painful lives as an exotic playground to their very faces, most of us would feel extremely uncomfortable — and rightly so.