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Wistful ‘Housekeeper’

A man’s complicated relationship with his housekeeper
/ Source: contributor

I’d like to know Woody Allen’s reaction to “The Housekeeper.” Claude Berri has achieved more with the classic theme of the middle-aged man and a young lover than Allen has in his last half-dozen variations.

As Jacques, a recording engineer in Paris, middle-aged but not severely rusted (balding, a bit flabby, but still able and virile), Jean-Pierre Bacri attains his own perfection of autumnal rue and rumination. He isn’t, like Allen, trying to snag the chicks with zingers.

As Jacques, who often appears as if he he had just chewed a large sour pickle, Bacri is angry that his wife left him for another man. When she wants back, he stays angry. Slumping grumpily into bachelor routines, he has a messy old flat he can’t keep clean, and soon after hiring the jobless Laura (Emilie Dequenne), in part for her looks, he finds that he wants her cleaning not just once but twice a week.

In adapting Christian Oster’s novel, Berri keeps a dry rhythm and a sly, but not naughty wink. Laura, clearly calling up her mother’s old housekeeping habits, prefers a broom to a vacuum. Before long, Jacques is telling her, “You have to become a pro. You have to vacuum.”

In essence, she vacuums him. This being Paris and a cozy situation, they are soon a pair. We sense that the ripe and eager jeune fille en fleur Laura is pledging her love, but also adding Jacques to what will be a serial rhythm of lovers. And that he, both enchanted and enchained, both sexed and unsettled by her appetites, will panic into flight.

They flee together, to Britanny, and the film keeps surprising. Jacques’ best old friend (Jacques Frantz), a “Sunday painter every day,” is as fixated on chickens as Picasso’s father was on pigeons. And at the beach, his white flesh surrounded by mostly taut and tanned bodies, Jacques feels like a chicken who has been plucked and hung out to burn.

This is a wistful comedy of a charmed mismatch, in love with Paris and Britanny, with men and women. It works old dichotomies (she likes loud rock, he favors jazz and Haydn; she reads magazines, he is plowing through Joseph Frank’s tome on Dostoevski). It is about being young and seizing life without much care, and about about getting old and realizing you’d better care about the choices remaining.

Berri, most known for heavy loaders like “Germinal” and “Jean de Florette,” has perhaps never been more subtle and penetrating. He has in the best (many) scenes blended the alert clarity of Eric Rohmer and the frisky humors of Bertrand Blier. He taps the inner juice in his Berri.

Bacri, previously so fine in “Une Air de Famille” and “Place Vendome,” and the delectable, but not dopey Dequenne, are excellent, with an edgy chemistry. There’s a roster of fine supporting people (notably Catherine Breillat as Jacques’ ex), and a nod to the great “Jules et Jim” sequence of bicycling near a beach, is a tossed rose that flutters through the air. Woody, study.

A Palm Pictures release, at a Landmark Theater. Director, writer: Claude Berri. Cast: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Emilie Dequenne, Jacques Frantz, Brigitte Catillon.