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HOUSEKEEPER, THE (UNE FEMME DE MENAGE) (director/writer/producer: Claude Berri; screenwriter: based on the novel by Christian Oster; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editor: François Gédigier; music: Frédéric Botton; cast: Jean-Pierre Bacri (Jacques), Emilie Dequenne (Laura), Brigite Catillon (Claire), Jacques Frantz (Ralph), Axelle Abbadie (Helene), Catherine Breillat (Constance), Amalric Gérard (Julien); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; Palm Pictures; 2002-France, in French with English subtitles)
Sells sex like how ice cream is hawked on a hot July day at the beach.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Veteran French director Claude Berri presents a well-crafted lighthearted comedy/drama about the meaning of love and loneliness. It’s full of wry observations about getting older and dealing with jealousy and being ditched, though everything was a bit too inconsequential for me to get worked up about its supposedly sly discoveries. But the perfect acting by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne (“Rosetta”) never let this film sink into just another lustful older man and gold digging younger woman scenario, as his bitter outlook and her joie de vivre go together in a mature way. It’s a love story that tells how opposites attract and can also be pushed away from one another.

Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a fiftyish Parisian, who has an important position as a musical sound engineer. His well-furnished bachelor apartment in St. Germain des Prés is dirty ever since his wife Constance jilted him some 5 months ago for another–someone he’s never met. The man with the hangdog expression, still hurting from being jilted after 15 years of marriage, responds to an ad for a housekeeper placed in a neighborhood bakery by the sweet but intellectually limited 22-year-old Laura (Émilie Dequenne). At first she is hired to clean only on Mondays, but then also on Fridays as he adds ironing to her chores seeing how little he pays her and how efficient and easy going she is. Friday is his off-day and while home he gets a chance to get to know her somewhat as the girl with the warm smile and the body that can make a man forget his troubles. She gets up enough nerve to ask permission to move in with him until she gets another place because her boyfriend is kicking her out and she doesn’t have enough work to pay rent for a place of her own, in fact he’s her only client. The uptight bourgeois Jacques is at first reluctant, but agrees if she will not play the rock music loud when he’s home. Settling into his pad the sexually forward housekeeper initiates the affair, as the ambivalent Jacques finds himself enjoying the sex and surprised that she’s also having a blast.

When Constance (Catherine Breillat) returns for a visit, pleading to come back, Jacques turns her down telling how much she hurt him. But this confrontation gets on his nerves, so he heads for a two-week holiday to Brittany to visit his reclusive bachelor artist friend Ralph in his chicken farm–he paints the chickens they dine on. Jacques is surprised that Laura doesn’t want to be left alone, as she talks him into taking her along. At the beach resort Jacques has to face his past again as new developments emerge when his wife’s wedding ring is found in Ralph’s bedroom. He also has to come to grips with the vast differences between Laura and him, which are not only age related but pertain to cultural values–she prefers trashy game show TV and club dancing, he reading a good book and staying home for a quiet evening, or talking with friends, or listening to jazz or classical music. When together they have so little in common besides sex, that they barely have any conversations. That the outcome of where this affair is going is not supposed to be surprising, as Berri’s aim is to make the point that after one has fallen for someone and the relationship slips away that is the loneliest and most hurtful time.

Berri sets the plot line to be an older man’s ideal fantasy arrangement and squeezes all the sexual charm he can out of its denouement. The Housekeeper sells sex like how ice cream is hawked on a hot July day at the beach. Everything was too obvious, yet it all seemed to work. In the final scene Jacques meets a saddened divorcee his age and discovers life is full of pains even though without taking certain risks there’s no pleasure to gain. Jacques’ coerced dip in the cold water and the cramp he develops as a result makes him realize that his brief fling could never amount to anything more than that and that it’s time to move on, as in the last shot his depressive look returns as he stares quietly out at the ocean and bleakly contemplates his future.

REVIEWED ON 12/3/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”