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Maid in France: Jean-Pierre Bacri hires Emilie Dequenne to set his life in order after his wife leaves him.

French Maid

Claude Berri's 'The Housekeeper' proves that even the cleanest relationship can be a messy affair

By Richard von Busack

LAURA MAY be 20, but she hasn't been 20 for long. She has a half-grown-out blonde dye job, some smudges of dirt on her chops and cheap, tight summer clothes. When she turns around, you can see a bug-size tattoo on her left shoulder blade. Early in The Housekeeper, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) turns a critical eye on Laura (Emilie Dequenne) when he interviews her at a Paris cafe, deciding whether to hire her to clean up his apartment. The place has been going to the dogs since his wife left him half a year ago for an unknown other man. Jacques is a jazz music producer, a balding, unsmiling, middle-aged party. He has a reserved demeanor that makes Bob Newhart look like a raving sensualist. Vaguely provoked by Laura's manner and clothes--it's the middle of a heat wave, so she's never overdressed--he signs her on.

Laura is hardly a professional. She dawdles at her work, trying to stretch out her hours. While she works, she listens to the kind of pop music that gives a classical fan like Jacques a major earache. One afternoon, Laura decides to beg him to let her stay, since her boyfriend has kicked her out. What follows could be called an older-man's fantasy, but it's not all that easy. While Laura gives herself up completely, insisting she loves Jacques, he's smart enough to dread how fickle a young girl can be. The two try to get away from their employer/employee roles with a trip to the seaside, but there's no way to change what's begun.

Based on Christian Oster's novel, this sweet/sour romance is akin to Lolita. And like Lolita, the story isn't about sex but about power and how it flows from back and forth between lovers. The man and the woman have so little in common--he has the power of money, she has the power of youth. And they can't keep their differences out of their fragile liaison.

Director Claude Berri, who used to work on an epic scale (Manon of the Spring, etc.), has made a hothouse story, in summer colors of blue and burnt orange. But the movie is cool and intimate; the weather's sweltering, yet everyone is calculating advantages and risks. Dequenne, previously of the Belgian success Rosetta, is excellent as the sweet-natured but opportunistic girl. Even better is a cameo by Catherine Breillat as Jacques' ex, Constance. Breillat is as canny an actor as she is a director (Fat Girl, etc.). Though her face is puffy and worn, her voice gets childishly petulant as she begs Jacques to forgive her for leaving. But when Constance registers what might be an opportunity, her demeanor changes. Scrutinizing him, she decides aloud, "You still love me." The little passage sums up that ruthless moment when a lover who has a hook in you sees a sign of weakness and gets ready to reel you back in.

The Housekeeper (Unrated; 90 min.), directed and written by Claude Berri, based on the novel by Christian Oster, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the July 24-30, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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