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July 21, 2003

"The Housekeeper"

Friedrich --

I wasn't expecting much of The Housekeeper, the new Claude Berri movie about a middle-aged, recently-dumped man and the young housekeeper who comes into his life, but I wound up having a pretty good time. As a film critic friend of mine used to say, "it ain't much" -- but the film works that "ain't much" territory very resourcefully.

In story terms, what you fully expect to happen happens, and often in ways you can semi-predict too. But that's OK, because what the film is really about is middle-age, and part of what it's saying is that even if you're familiar with how things go and how they play out -- even if you've earned some worldweariness -- you're still likely to be encounter a few surprises. A few.

I'll try to spare you the film-reviewer and plot-synopsis stuff. What kept me watching contentedly were the film's unforced bits of observation, and the open-endedness of the writing and the performing. Tiny moments of rue, grumpiness, humiliation and pleasure; scenes that may or may not come to a point ... You can take note or not. Most of the people in the audience seemed smiley and charmed; I laughed out loud quite a lot.

Jean-Pierre Bacri, who plays the lead, is wonderful. His character may be balding and his face may have more than its share of character, but he wears it all suavely. He's got style (French men age differently than American men do) and he's no square. But he's hit an age when the creaks and pains are piling up; when it's grown hard to kick the tired butt into gear; when women decline politely but firmly to flirt ... Bacri's sneakiness is witty and touching; he lets the character have both his dignity and his vulnerability, which he shows us in microscopic flashes. Emilie Dequenne, who plays the housekeeper, is wonderful in a different way. Where Bacri is slyly skillful, she just is. Her housekeeper is half-plain, half-pretty -- as well as fervent, klutzy, beaming, desperate, passionate, and silly. (She's also a number of un-toned pounds heavier than any young American actress in such a role would be allowed to be.) She's a convincingly squirmy, unformed post-adolescent, both enchanting and banal. And she has a dewy glow -- she's rather egg-y. The moments of attraction and stress between the two characters are awfully well-done. He likes his jazz, his books, and his quiet time; she loves rap, dancing and the beach. He keeps up a kind of hipster courtliness; she's all about her youthful disarray, her unbleached roots, and her disobediant bra straps.

The film has a lot of odd, stray elements -- it's rumpled, and it doesn't make too big a deal out of anything. Part of what's refreshing about the film is how un-punched-up it is. Even when some of the shots seem poorly exposed or incorrectly white-balanced, you like it for refusing to get too worked up. These moments feel as though someone said, "Look, really, why should we bother ourselves too much, it's not as if the world is going to stop. Let's push the button, take the shot and get on with our lives." Which of course meshes with the just-getting-by, glad-to-be-alive, middle-age texture of the film.

The whole thing could of course be nothing more than a dirty fantasy: the wife dumps you, you can barely drag yourself to work -- and, bam, into your life comes a sexy young woman, who turns out to dig you. But the writer/director Claude Berri treats the premise with a compassionate, not a leering, face. Berri is probably best-known for his "Manon" movies, but he has also been doing male-menopause movies for some decades. I remember his "Le Sex Shop" from back in 1973, and "One Wild Moment," Berri's movie about a middle-aged man seduced into an affair by his best friend's daughter, was the source material for the immortal "Blame It On Rio," one of my favorite bad movies.

Berri pointedly doesn't push the envelope of anything. You sit there, for example, wondering when you're going to learn more about the girl. Is she crazy? Where's her family? What's her background? And Berri never provides any of this kind of information. You never get an explanation. Yet even as you're getting used to this, you're also registering that Berri and Dequenne are showing you different sides of the girl; you're learning all you really need to know just by watching her.

So: a nice French movie circa 1971. Paris. Lots of talking about love in cafes. Time by the seashore. Red wine and cigarettes. No great shakes, in other words -- but in a pleasing and eloquent, big-melancholy-Gallic-shrug kind of way. It's a movie about how the inevitable can occur, and can do so just as you'd imagine it would, yet it can still get to you, and perhaps more than you'd really have liked it to. But it's a comedy, too. Kind of. And zat is la vie, non?



posted by Michael at July 21, 2003


"Her housekeeper is half-plain, half-pretty -- as well as fervent, klutzy, beaming, desperate, passionate, and silly. (She's also a number of un-toned pounds heavier than any young American actress in such a role would be allowed to be.) She's a convincingly squirmy, unformed post-adolescent, both enchanting and banal. And she has a dewy glow -- she's rather egg-y."

Well, for a man who keeps posting pictures of adolescents in bikinis, and the idiot-girl Britney, I'm charmed and surprised. Thanks for this.

Posted by: annette on July 22, 2003 10:15 AM

Well, I'm not totally shallow. Am I?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2003 6:46 PM

Wellllllllll....gotta think about that one.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 22, 2003 8:12 PM

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