Like Gérard Depardieu, French actress Miou-Miou first came to international attention in Bertrand Blier's Going Places and Ménage. Her intriguing new film, Dry Cleaning, is directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine, but in central ways it resembles Blier's work: It chronicles a romantic triangle, with Miou-Miou only the apparent apex.
When we first meet Jean-Marie and Nicole Kunstler (Charles Berling and Miou-Miou), they appear the very picture of a petit bourgeois couple. They work hard at their small dry-cleaning business in the town of Belfort; money is always tight, but they manage to keep a roof over their heads. One night they go to a local nightclub to see a brother-and-sister drag act called the Queens of the Night. The next day, LoÏc (Stanislas Merhar, making his screen debut), the male half of the act, comes by to get a stain removed from his gown. His presence makes Jean-Marie uncomfortable, but to Nicole he represents a touch of glamour in their drab lives.
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When the act breaks up, the distraught LoÏc is stranded; the Kunstlers put him up and teach him the trade, at which he immediately excels. But there is also an obvious danger to having this extraordinarily pretty young man Merhar looks like a paler version of David Duchovny living with them. Tongues begin to wag, and with good reason: It's only a matter of time before Nicole and LoÏc begin to sneak off for quickies in the basement.
At this point, the story seems like yet another retread of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice: handsome drifter moves in with male benefactor and dissatisfied wife, creating sexual sparks. But this is a French film we're talking about, so it soon becomes clear that the sexual attraction lines are not nearly so clear-cut and hetero.
While much of Dry Cleaning unfolds like a sex farce, waiting to explode into a climax of slamming doors and substitute partners, Fontaine ultimately cleaves to a serious tone. Her concerns are the tragic potential of sexual disruptions and the fragility of middle-class morality. From the film's start, even before LoÏc's arrival, the Kunstlers' life together feels at once both staid and on the brink of something. One can only assume that if LoÏc had not arrived, they would have found some other catalyst to dredge up all the problems in their marriage, though perhaps not one so radical and explosive.
Fontaine maintains control throughout, believably nudging the characters along on the road to disaster. She draws perfectly nuanced performances from all three, including newcomer Merhar, but in the end it is Berling's character around whom Dry Cleaning swirls, and the movie is really his show.