- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

“The Housekeeper,” a melancholy romantic comedy from Claude Berri, looks professionally immaculate and is enhanced by grace notes that begin and end with a savory jazz piano score composed by Frederic Botton.

The musical theme might as well borrow the title “Paris Blues.” Adapting a novel by Christian Oster that seemed to coincide with a conjugal estrangement of his own, Mr. Berri leaves us at the mercy of a romantic interlude so fleeting and dubious that it’s difficult to make a case for bittersweet or poignant gratification.

The protagonist, a sound engineer named Jacques (embodied by the thoroughly saturnine Jean-Pierre Bacri) has been abandoned by his wife, Constance, and lingers in upper-middle-class squalor as a solitary apartment dweller. The reality of the situation is a bit tenuous: It looks as if it would have been fun to be part of the set-decoration team responsible for littering the joint.

Nevertheless, Jacques feels a hopeful urge to get things back in order and contacts a young woman who has left a Post-it Note for housekeeping work in his neighborhood bistro. She turns up in the fetching, if somewhat disheveled, person of Emilie Dequenne. Called Laura, she admits to having no experience but is sincerely desperate for gainful employment.

She turns out to be a short-term bundle of contradictions: She loves to work to rap music (the exotic variation of French-language rap) but prefers mopping floors by hand and using a broom rather than a vacuum on carpets.

After a decent interval, Laura also reveals that she’s being kicked out by her boyfriend and needs a place to stay. Sort of reluctantly, Jacques agrees to put her up. Gallantly, he sacrifices his own bedroom and sleeps on the couch, where Laura approaches one enchanted evening and they become lovers.

Cuddlesome domesticity seems to suit her splendidly, but Jacques remains emotionally guarded, rejecting the notion that this liaison might have a sustained future. His skepticism proves justified during a vacation to Normandy, where Laura’s ardor, if not her gratitude, fades as soon as she encounters an attractive suitor her own age.

The denouement seems to knee Jacques in the groin a bit perversely. There’s an excruciating fade-out line that underlines his dejection. It arrives moments after a cleverly metaphorical and strenuous swim in which he almost drowns while trying to keep up with another woman. You can’t accuse “The Housekeeper” of gloating about the prospects of middle-aged men who find themselves alone, susceptible and vulnerable to a painful brushoff.

The conception includes curious walk-by appearances by several women of Jacques’ generation: an old friend named Claire (Brigitte Catillon), also a marital casualty and transplanted from Paris to Brittany without any motive beyond idle teasing as far as I could discern; the dread Constance herself, impersonated by the notorious sex-film director Catherine Breillat, who looks quite terrifying; and the swimmer, Helene (Axelle Abbadie), who appears very capable of being the death of Jacques in more ways than one.

Claude Berri used to cast himself as blundering spouses in such semiautobiographical romantic- domestic comedies as “Marry Me! Marry Me!” and “Le Sex Shop.” The source material for “The Housekeeper” seems to have turned up at just the right moment to help him contemplate a lonely, heartbroken skid toward the retirement years.

**1/2

TITLE: “The Housekeeper”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter — fleeting profanity and occasional nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Claude Berri. Screenplay by Mr. Berri, based on the novel by Christian Oster. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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