The first fiction feature to be directed by French writer Emmanuel Carrère – well-known in France for his non-fiction – plunges us straight into an I, Daniel Blake-like situation in a job centre in the Normandy port city of Caen: there’s a storm of shouting, frustration and condescension as a young mother, Christèle (Hélène Lambert), confronts a manager over a bureaucratic tangle and refuses to shut up and get to the back of the queue.
Also in the room is another job seeker, a quieter woman who’s clearly not used to this but is sucking it all in. Marianne (Juliette Binoche) sits for an interview with an adviser and learns that her little professional experience after years playing second fiddle to a working husband means that her best bet for finding work is to offer herself up as a cleaner.
Christèle – a force of life who lights up this film whenever she appears – and Marianne will meet again as part of a tight band of workers who spend three shifts a day cleaning the cabins of cross-Channel ferries for the minimum wage. They arrive at dawn, early enough to see African migrants wandering the port in the half-light. The film throws us into the rhythms and rituals of this work. The drudgery is offset by a tight camaraderie among the workers that’s felt most strongly in a pre-shift party for a colleague who is leaving for another job.
But, before then, we discover that this is not simply a drama about the modern world in the vein of a Ken Loach film or something by Carrère’s compatriot Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of a Man). Marianne is in fact an undercover writer, preparing a book on precarious working conditions. It’s her secret, and we’re the only ones carrying it in the room.
So, does this become a navel-gazing exercise in examining the work and conscience of a writer, with her subject – people’s real lives (something stressed by the great unprofessional actors in most of the roles) – just forming background colour? Luckily, not at all – although the question itself gives the film a particular energy as we’re on the lookout for insincerity and complexities in the relationships between Marianne and her new colleagues and friends.
You could say it’s an especially honest film: any story based on real lives, real working conditions and similar will be based on a writer’s interpretation of what they see or hear or think they know: this is just bringing that reality to the fore, reminding us, planting it in our heads as another check on what we’re witnessing on screen. It’s a loose adaptation of Florence Aubenas’s ‘The Night Cleaner’ (Aubenas essentially went undercover like Binoche’s character), and although Binoche is the film’s star, her presence is smartly muted, allowing us time and space to discover the world as she does, and providing room for complexity in considering the ethics of his character’s work and of Carrère’s film itself.
In US theaters Aug 11.