August 25, 2023
Dear Frenchly Readers,
The other day I sat down on a rainy afternoon while my husband was working on dinner and had an unusual luxury: I got to watch Juliette Binoche in the new movie, Between Two Worlds. Based on the journalist Florence Aubenas’ 2010 book, called Le Quai de Ouistreham, which was published in English as The Night Cleaner in 2011, the movie is about a woman working for below minimum wage as a cleaning lady on a ferry that goes back and forth across the channel from France to England. The film captivated me immediately. Aubenas, whom some refer to as France’s Barbara Ehrenreich (the late American journalist who went undercover to write her book about the American working class, Nickel and Dimed), had ventured into difficult territory before: Aubenas was covering the Iraq War for the Libération newspaper in 2005 when she and her translator were captured and held for six months. In captivity, they endured beatings, harassment, blindfolding as torture, and more. There is an amazingly touching photo, here, of Aubenas being greeted by president Jacques Chirac after she has been rescued from Iraq and is descending from a plane to come home to France. This entire article, if you have the time, is thoughtful and moving.
After Aubenas was freed, she went back to work writing and, eventually, supposedly, took a sabbatical. But in reality she went undercover in the northern city of Caen to work as a cleaning woman on boats leaving from the port city of Ouistreham. She wanted to write about what was happening to the working class in the 2008-09 recession and, more specifically, what was happening to women, who were trying to get by on little, often with children and other dependents. She told Gaby Levin for Haaretz in the above article that, “During the job searches and afterwards while working – I met courageous women who are prepared to handle rejection, humiliation and psychological harassment in order to hold onto a job.” She told Levy that, “In Iraq it was hard, of course, but I did not lose hope for even a moment because I knew that my country, my newspaper and my family would not let me fall… There were frightening moments because in a situation of constant tension one’s thinking goes awry, loses its sharpness, but hope was there in the background. The experience in Ouistreham was different: There, I understood how a lack of hope is something that depends on social class.” She also said, famously, “Being a French laborer was worse than Iraqi captivity.”
Juliette Binoche is amazingly subtle, nuanced and real as the Aubenas stand-in, Marianne Winckler. And the entire world of workers as depicted in the film is incredibly authentic. This interview here with Binoche explains how doggedly she worked to get to play this part and how much it meant to her, and how raw she, herself, was when she began filming. Andrea Meyer wrote a review of the film here, which includes the trailer. Take a look.
I was particularly interested in this subject matter because during that same recession I created a series of audio diaries for NPR about my husband and myself losing our jobs and leaving California, where we were living at that time, with a new baby, to move in with my mother in Maine. I ended up writing a book called Made for You and Me, which tried to examine class and job loss in America. You can hear those audio diaries here, on my website, and read about the book (or watch a video about it!), too.
There is also an interesting TV show about cleaning ladies that I watched last winter, which stars the actress Margaret Qualley. It’s called Maid and can be found on Netflix. It’s not terrible, but it didn’t captivate me the way Binoche did. The French movie is gritty and real; shot in grays and muted colors, you get the feeling that the world for these women is never in bright colors; that moments of joy are hard to come by, and require heroic efforts to achieve. That similar territory in American hands takes on a brashness, a sense of weird corporate product placement and a shininess that is harder to believe or care about. This is often the case with French movies; there is a much more simple desire to tell a real story rather than splashy a splashy one.
À cuisiner çe weekend:
By the time you get this Le Weekend, I should be–one hopes, ha!–on my way home from camping with my two boys. In a few days, school will start. In our house, we make spaghetti and meatballs to celebrate going back to school. Usually we have so many beautiful tomatoes right about now, we make a gorgeous sauce. (This year, due to record rain in Maine, we have very few ripe tomatoes.). For the meatballs, I use a simple recipe not unlike this one, though I use fresh garlic and extra grated Parm. (Nigella Lawson has this recipe, here or here (on YouTube) which features a mix of pork and beef, though of course you could use turkey as one of the meats or tofu, too, to cut down on the meat. Or, to go totally veggie, a combo of lentils and tofu works great.)
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