There are those who will immediately roll their eyes and groan when told that The Housekeeper is the latest French film about the relationship between a middle-aged man and a twenty year-old woman.
But this is not a sex fantasy of any kind. Veteran writer-director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, 1986), adapting a novel by Christian Oster, aims for a subtle, moody, occasionally humourous portrait of an odd relationship.
Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is barely coping with the disintegration of his daily routines in the wake of his split from his wife, Constance (Catherine Breillat in a tough, touching cameo). So he hires a young housekeeper, Laura (Èmilie Dequenne), who at first seems entirely professional and detached.
Things take a tricky turn once Laura announces that she has nowhere to live, and would appreciate staying full-time with Jacques. An affair of sorts develops, accompanied by an amusing parody of domestic relationships and gender roles: despite our enlightened times, Laura seems only too happy to maintain her perfect housekeeping record.
Dequenne exudes such unforced naturalness on screen that some viewers incorrectly assume she began as a non-professional actor. Her powerhouse screen debut in Rosetta (1999) set a certain template for subsequent roles: she is always driven, a creature of impulse, transparent, in some sense an innocent.
Berri gives Dequenne a little more erotic glamour than the Dardenne brothers did. But his casting of her in The Housekeeper is canny, because the expectations built into this type of story – that Laura is manipulating Jacques for the sake of her material survival, and that she will eventually cruelly betray him – wither and die in the face of Dequenne's vital spontaneity.
In a familiar French storytelling style, Laura has no real backstory. We learn almost nothing of her past relationships, her family, her upbringing, her schooling. She is a creature of the present moment, who simply follows her heart and her desires. Beginning a relationship with Jacques is, for her, as natural as breathing.
But Jacques's neuroses get in the way. Again, the casting is precise: both as an actor and a screenwriter, Bacri is a specialist in projecting and dissecting the problems of the middle-class male. One aspect of this character's psychology did not ring true for me: why would a guy who is such a disordered slob then be so anally-fixated about constantly ringing his housekeeper up from work and minutely supervising her cleaning activities?
This contradiction aside, Jacques is an intriguing study in masculine behaviour. His tidy compartmentalisation of the people and parts of his life cannot stand up to Laura's heartfelt entreaties, declarations and tears. And when Laura confronts him with the awful truth – that, once they return to Paris after a country sojourn, she will merely be his housekeeper again, not his fully-fledged lover – he cannot make a move to break this deadlock.
The Housekeeper will strike many viewers as a wry parable about the role of age differences in intimate relationships. This is a theme that Berri, in fact, remains silent on for most of the film. Jacques occasionally broaches the age gap in a slightly worried tone; Laura never mentions it, and seems not to care.
What finally happens when the story unravels has much less to do with age than with questions of commitment and trust.
MORE Berri: Lucie Aubrac
© Adrian Martin December 2003