Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 12, 2003 5:28 am 
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Claude Berri’s Une Femme de Ménage (Housekeeper) takes us to a familiar world of contemporary French cinema: a casual, chic quartier of Paris where a successful fifty-something jazz record producer named Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) lives in a very comfortable flat that’s a very big mess because his wife has left him. He answers a notice tacked up on a neighborhood café and before long Laura (Émilie Dequenne), a twenty-something with a perfect, ripe body and cooperative good nature equally in evidence, is not only coming twice a week to clean and iron, but, because her boyfriend kicks her out, has moved in. Next thing you know she’s offering that body to Jacques and when his estranged wife Constance (played in a tortured cameo by director Catherine Breillat) appears at the door and begs for a reconciliation, he decides to escape on a two-week vacation in Brittany at his artist-chicken farmer friend Ralph’s place, and Laura begs to be taken along.

There is something charming about this moment when Jacques and Laura head for the seacoast, Laura packing the vacuum cleaner (“aspirateur” in French) to practice (she’s been using a broom, so she can enjoy hip-hop on the boom box; he’s told her she must master the “aspirateur” if she’s going to get more work) – and insisting on getting herself a haircut and dye job en route. She’s very much a work in progress, and the uncertainty of her relationship with Jacques is interesting. It’s so absurd you half believe it might work.

Laura is eager to please and so docile and loving, poor Jacques would have a new mate for sure if he didn’t mind one twenty-five or thirty years younger whose taste runs to loud pop, junky TV, and trashy magazines. The dialogue in the car defines the uncertainty. He doesn’t love her -- he’d be a fool to – but he likes having her around.

Ralph (Jacques Frantz) provides a whimsically eccentric note – he paints portraits of his pet chickens and then serves them for dinner; the house smells like a barnyard. But it also turns out, when Laura snoops in Ralph’s bedroom and finds a ring with Jacques’ name on it, that Constance has been there recently in her wanderings and has slept with Ralph.

The beach is what separates Jacques and Laura. She loves the water; he hates it. He covers up and reads while she plunges, and then she becomes a regular in volleyball games with two teams of well built young men. Late at night she insists that Jacques take her dancing. He meets an old woman friend there – also just abandoned by her mate. . . but this sounds more complicated than it is. What happens is that when Jacques says he's about to go back to Paris, where Laura, who can be anything she wants here, is only his housekeeper, Laura finds a young man, and is as ready to pair off with him as she was with Jacques.

Jacques meets the young man’s mom on the beach. She’s getting divorced. He’s sympathetic. He goes for a swim to keep mom company. He gets a cramp in the water. She helps him out. Maybe they’ll become a couple. THE END.

It’s too bad this novel adaptation by the talented M. Berri trails off this way. There is real fun in the sense of possibility Laura’s voluptuous appearance provides. In French movies, old, ugly men are deemed attractive: note that Laura’s cute new boyfriend doesn’t even have a speaking part. He’s just a walk-on – or rather a run-off: he lopes down to the ocean with Laura and that’s the last we see of him. This alone makes Housekeeper a fresh vision for American viewers.

However, there’s hardly anything profound here, despite the French point of view, nor can Laura, whose nice body and youth are her chief coping skills, be seen as a liberated woman in the mold of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim. Une Femme de Ménage is fun, but there’s something hasty and condescending about it. An Eric Rohmer story probably wouldn’t have the uneasy class aspects of Laura’s inappropriateness for Jacques: age would be the only factor (compare Claire’s Knee). To see how hasty the story is, compare the sensitive and profound character study of a lonely man in Claude Sautet’s 1992 Un Coeur en Hiver.

Une Femme de Ménage/Housekeeper, 91 mins., debuted 13 November 2002 in Belgium and France. US theatrical release from 11 July 2003 (limited). Screened for this review at Angelika Film Center NYC 11 July.

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