For someone living in disarray, a housekeeper can provide more than a simple return to order. When the ashtrays are finally emptied, the bed freshly made with clean sheets, the dishes washed and neatly arranged in the cupboard, who hasn’t felt the promise of a new beginning? The Housekeeper, veteran French director Claude Berri’s remarkably faithful adaptation of Christian Oster’s slyly comic and bitter novel A Cleaning Woman (newly translated by Mark Polizotti for the Other Press), explores that delicate moment of transition when one phase of a man’s life has ended, and he’s not yet aware that another has begun.
Jean-Pierre Bacri stars as Jacques, a usually meticulous fiftysomething Parisian sound engineer who’s managed to let the newspapers and dirty socks pile up at home in the months since he was dumped by his longtime live-in girlfriend. One day, responding to an ad in his local bakery, he hires Laura (Emilie Dequenne), an inexperienced young woman, to clean his apartment. They make an odd pair—he likes reading and listens to jazz or classical music, while she sweeps to techno and enjoys sinister television game shows. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, her presence begins to arouse first his curiosity, then something more.
Berri, whose previous film, La Débandade (Hard Off), was an autobiographical farce about erectile dysfunction, has an unerring instinct for probing the chinks in masculine armor. In a flawless performance, Bacri lets us glimpse the tender desperation beneath his character’s harsh, curmudgeonly exterior. Whether chewing dinner alone in his apartment (like a man eating his last meal and not liking the taste), or hanging onto a pole in the métro as if for dear life, he radiates both toughness and a terrible loneliness. Director of photography Eric Gautier’s camera makes the most of Bacri’s knife-like presence, framing him repeatedly against vast backgrounds—a shopping mall or a crowded beach—that are studies in alienation.
Dequenne’s tattered charm and sheer joie de vivre (unsuspected from her breakthrough role in the Dardenne brothers’ grim Rosetta) shift their balance of power, shattering his brittle reserve. The film’s French title, Une Femme de Ménage, carries an erotic connotation—as in ménage à trois. But don’t suspect a happy ending. As in Oster’s novel, this is a deceptively light story about the emptiness that drives people both into each other’s arms, and away from one another. When a long-lost girlfriend finally returns (here director Catherine Breillat, in a surprising cameo), it’s almost always too little that’s offered, and too late.