Sweeping beauty

A man can’t help falling in love with the help in The Housekeeper

Christian Oster’s The Housekeeper is the
good kind of French novel. It’s breezy, funny, intelligent (but not
pretentious) and short—it runs just under 200 sparsely-spaced pages in
its English-language edition. You can read the whole thing in an afternoon
and put it down feeling refreshed and sophisticated instead of tired and
existentially alienated. In that sense, I suppose writer/director Claude
Berri’s new film version of the book is a faithful adaptation. It runs
just under 90 minutes, its observations about male/female relationships are
consistently wise and engaging and yet the whole thing is so airy that when
you rise from your seat at the closing credits, you barely feel as though
you’ve even watched a movie. And yet you can’t wait to talk it
over with your girlfriend.

It’s a comedy of manners devoted to two of the great French
obsessions: falling in love and administering an efficient household. As the
film opens, our hero, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is excelling at neither
activity. He’s a lonely middle-aged bachelor still recovering from the
breakup of his marriage—the wreckage of his personal life is symbolized
by the unholy mess in his apartment, which is strewn with dirty dishes,
cloudy glasses and unironed items of clothing. At long last, he hires an
attractive young woman, Laura (Rosetta’s Emilie Dequenne), to come in
once a week to tidy the place up. Once a week soon turns into twice a week,
and then, when Laura tells Jacques that she’s being evicted and needs a
place to stay, he offers to let her board temporarily at his place.
Inevitably, it isn’t long before they’re sleeping together.

Amusingly, it’s not the fastidious, self-conscious Jacques who
initiates this relationship; if anything, it’s Laura who’s always
taking things eagerly to the next level—asking to move in, leaning in
for the first kiss, inviting herself along with Jacques on a holiday to
Brittany. The two lovers are obviously, hopelessly wrong for each
other—besides the age difference, Jacques likes jazz, classical music
and Russian literature while Laura prefers techno, celebrity magazines and
trashy TV shows—but their affection for each other, while it lasts, is
genuine, if a bit befuddling to both Jacques and the audience.

Oster’s novel is written in first person from Jacques’s point
of view, and most of its humour arises from the endearingly self-deluded way
in which Jacques analyzes his affair with Laura; when he’s not
neurotically trying to figure out if Laura really is falling in love with
him, he’s puzzling over how to carry on an affair with his maid without
exploiting the unfair class system. Berri, on the other hand, gives Jacques a
little more dignity—his film is still told from Jacques’s
perspective, but Berri, much like his countryman Claude Sautet, prefers to
stand farther back from his characters and let Jacques’s external
behaviour, not his internal thoughts, tell the story. The charm of The
Housekeeper is in this slow accumulation of revealing details: the way
Jacques cleans up his apartment himself the day before Laura’s first
visit; or how Jacques can’t quite decide whether to treat Laura as a
houseguest, a lover or an employee once she moves in with him; or
Jacques’s embarrassed behaviour when he and Laura arrive at the beach
in Brittany, a sign that he already knows how ridiculous they look together.
(Bacri is marvelous at playing middle-aged romantic uncertainty; you may
remember him from his similar role in 1999’s The Taste of Others.)

I liked pretty much everything about The Housekeeper, but it’s still
a bit too slight and wispy for me to recommend it as essential viewing. What
it is is a droll, good-hearted fantasy for anyone who’s ever dreamed of
falling in love with a French girl—or at least having one clean their
bathtub. V

The Housekeeper Written and directed by Claude Berri
• Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne • Now on video

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