Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Émilie Dequenne, Brigitte Catillon, Jacques Frantz, Axelle Abbadie, Catherine Breillat, Apollinaire Louis-Philippe Dogue, Amalric Gérard
Written by: Claude Berri, based on a book by Christian Oster
Directed by: Claude Berri
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity and brief language
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 03/18/2013

The Housekeeper (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'House' Breaking

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How thin and frail our little facades are. How easy it is to get under someone's skin and get them to reveal their true selves: needy, clingy, vain, love-starved animals. In Claude Berri's The Housekeeper, a music engineer hires a girl to come in once a week to clean his filthy apartment. He's middle-aged, balding and recently divorced; she's young and sexy with two-toned hair. Their messy, sexy relationship makes them both happy for a while, until real life butts in and the whole things spins out of control, leaving both sides uncomfortably bruised, embarrassed and wondering what in the hell they were thinking.

Director Claude Berri is no master, but he's a filmmaker with a sensitive touch. He tells simple stories from the inside out, shaking off their shell-like conventions in favor of small moments. His memorable two-part work Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring (both 1986) could be described as nothing more than simple tales of greed and revenge, but uncommonly lovely and passionate. Berri hooks us early on in The Housekeeper. He establishes poor Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) with a series of ordinary shots: Jacques at work, Jacques at home, Jacques' messy apartment. Forgoing the usual "call to adventure" most Hollywood screenwriters swear by, Jacques simply tears off one of those bulletin board ads and phones.

Jacques and his new employee agree to meet in a café. In a terrific sequence that already suggests lust, he sits and imagines what she might look like. A young woman walks in; he half-rises, but she passes him by. An old woman enters. He remains seated, relieved when she too walks by. Finally Laura (Émilie Dequenne, from Rosetta) enters. They spy each other and she sits down. Bacri does amazing things with his face -- allowing us to see his physical reaction to this girl, but trying to hide it from her. Laura hides her feelings a bit more successfully -- like the vacant-faced Sophie Guillemin in Cedric Kahn's L'Ennui (1998) -- and as a result Berri forces us to side with Jacques.

Laura cleans the apartment, flowing to the latest techno, while Jacques soothes to quiet jazz and a good book. Finally she drops the bomb: she must move out of her bad boyfriend situation and she has nowhere to go. Can she stay just a few days? Before long, Laura's cold, hard "Lolita"-like surface gives way to unbearable neediness. She longs for Jacques to love her and strips off her clothes for him. When he plans to go away for a week, she begs to come with him. She even cuts her hair for him.

Berri rises out of this engulfing tête-à-tête from time to time, introducing other characters and providing perspective. Jacques occasionally has drinks with a woman closer to his own age, Claire (Brigitte Catillon), as if to further question why Jacques needs such a young girl for company. His ex-wife turns up as well, just as needy and clingy, but -- as embodied by controversial director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) -- she appears more repulsive than alluring. Finally, Ralph (Jacques Frantz), appears as another of Jacques' old friends who puts the new couple up in his beach-side home during their vacation. For some reason, Ralph does nothing but raise and paint pictures of chickens. After one scrumptious meal, he announces that they've eaten the subject of one of his most recent works. Ralph does not have a sexy twentysomething in his bed, but he seems much happier than Jacques.

Alone in an apartment, surrendering to our deepest desires can be enjoyable, even erotic. But staying at a friend's house or going to the beach, leaves you open, vulnerable and a horrendously easy target. Berri plays both the bedroom scenes and the beach scenes with the same tender touch, so that the contentment and loneliness, the pleasure and pain, both hit us at the same rate. The Housekeeper is ultimately Jacques' movie rather than the housekeeper's -- understandable coming from a 69-year-old male filmmaker. Berri peels away the male sexual ego to show both how fragile it is and how powerful it is, how easily it can override logic and reason. Flattery, in other words, will get you everywhere.

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