Probably best-known in this country for Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, French writer-director Claude Berri has also made numerous comedies in his career, many of them concerning the male species' desire for companionship and often comical attempts to obtain it. His latest film, The Housekeeper (Une Femme de Ménage) (in French with English subtitles), is a somewhat wistful tale of a completely inappropriate May-December romance that leaves the man momentarily sad but probably a whole lot wiser.
A sound engineer at a music recording studio, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is seemingly mature, erudite, a bit curmudgeonly and set in his ways, an avid reader and a lover of classical music and jazz. When we first meet him he is still dealing with -- it might be more accurate to say not dealing with -- his wife's sudden departure after what he considered 15 acceptable years of marriage. His apartment is a mess, rather like the state of his mind, and he hires a housekeeper who has advertised at the corner cafe. Laura, 20 years old and without any great ambition in life, initially works one day a week.
When Laura and her boyfriend break up, she asks Jacques if she can move in temporarily. Reluctantly he agrees. In no time, she has insinuated herself into his bed. Being a lonely man who hasn't had sex in a while, he readily acquiesces.
The Housekeeper (Une Femme de Mnage)
The two could not be more different. Laura watches mindless television programs, reads People magazine and listens to loud pop music. They have nothing in common, save perhaps a sense of loneliness and a certain apathy, but that seems to be enough to create a level of emotional attachment.
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Jacques's estranged wife, Constance (played by film director Catherine Breillat), shows up at his door one day, asking him to take her back. Apparently things haven't worked out with her new lover. Enraged and in terrible pain, Jacques kicks her out, hurriedly packs his bags and flees town on a hastily arranged vacation. Laura begs to accompany him. He relents only when she dissolves into tears.
By the time they arrive at the seaside cottage of a man named Ralph, Jacques has almost talked himself into believing that he loves Laura. Winningly played by Jacques Frantz, Ralph is another lonely, middle-aged man. He paints pictures of chickens and then eats his models.
The differences between Jacques and Laura become even more obvious. Laura is impetuous, spontaneous and outgoing, but also clingy, insensitive and bearing the narcissism of youth. He is staid and negative but charmed by her freshness. Can the relationship last?
Why in the world would Jacques want it to? Although meant as a light comedy/ drama in which both characters are sympathetic, The Housekeeper instead proves irritating. The problem is Laura's character. Perhaps a middle-aged or older man would feel differently, but she seems to offer so little. She and Jacques never have a real conversation; she is alternately pliant and demanding; and she is sickeningly clingy. Jacques may not be the greatest catch, but at least he has opinions and a personality. It strains credulity that these two would get together, and even though the couple's incompatibility is a key point of the story, that fact makes it impossible to invest in the relationship or have any sympathy for the characters.