A love story that's about to get messy.
It isn't a normal movie year without the dozens of lame brained, idiotic romantic comedies Hollywood churns out. Often riddled with clichés, clunky plotting, and less than convincing chemistry, it seems to be very easy to make one of these typical films.
To his credit, Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) has not made one of those films. Rather, The Housekeeper (Une femme de ménage) manages to not only be a fresh, funny film but it also transcends the genre to become something wholly other: a smart movie.
Facts of the Case
By day, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is an engineer for a Paris recording studio. By night, he is an ordinary lonely guy. His wife has just left him for another man. He has a few friends, but no one to whom he is very close. His apartment makes Oscar Madison look like Mr. Clean.
Jacques decides to place a want ad for a housekeeper. He gets a response from Laura (Emilie Dequenne), a young twentysomething. Desperate, he hires her after a meeting in a local café.
One day, Laura asks if she can stay at his apartment for a few days. He hesitates, but then agrees. A few days soon grows to a few weeks. A few weeks turns into a few months. A few months turns into sharing the same bed.
I know that the above description doesn't sound like a great film. In fact, it sounds more like those dumb ones I ranted about in the Opening Statement. As evidence, I offer a film that opened opposite ours: Alex and Emma. That film was wretched and offensive (offensive in the sense that Hollywood would think audiences would be willing to accept something that shallow). It seemed content to tell its story without any genuine feeling or heart. As an author of a romantic comedy myself, I do understand that it is difficult to make the genre seem fresh after many miserable retreads.
But it is possible. Examples could include the work of Paul Mazursky and Billy Wilder. Many of their films covered the wounds and mishaps of romance but they didn't pander to cliché. Sometimes they parodied it (such as Wilder did with Kiss Me Stupid and Mazursky did with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice), and those films worked well. More often, both men made the serious comedy, or films that managed to combine both comedy and drama together to create a unique experience. What made those filmmakers' films so special was that they paid more attention to character rather than plot. Those characters were living, breathing people of whom you may not have approved of what they did but at least you could believe their actions.
It is that very trait that Claude Berri brings to life in The Housekeeper. Working from a novel by Christian Oster, the movie is not so much a plotted story but rather a tone poem about individuality and attraction. No doubt the words "tone poem" will scare some of you out there. Don't be scared, but rather just sit back and let this movie flow into your mind.
I think the film is one of 2003's best. It's a bit short at 86 minutes, but it's just the right length for this kind of story. Any longer and it would burst. Some scenes are hilarious, but it's comedy of a different kind. It's steeped in reality rather than being constructed from a joke book. Other scenes are thoughtful and moving, as we grow to love these characters. It's an amazing feat to keep hope even during the bleakest moments.
The two lead performances are the film's biggest asset. For the past 25 years, Jean-Pierre Bacri has made a specialty of stodgy characterizations. His work in The Housekeeper is no different. It's a triumph of low-key acting, the kind Jude Law wouldn't know how to do since he became famous. After seeing the film once, watch it again and pay close attention to Bacri's acting choices. They're all natural and more importantly, they're right.
But the film's masterstroke is the casting of Emilie Dequenne in the title role. In an era where there aren't many young actresses to rave about, this 22 year old Belgian actress has more than fulfilled the promise she showed in her breakthrough role Rosetta (1999; which won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes). Her performance has many layers. She proves she is much more than just eye candy. This role could have been a disaster in the wrong hands (Hollywood would no doubt hand the role over to Nicole Kidman, the most overrated actress of recent years), but in Dequenne's hands, the character is so much more than an attractive girl. There is vulnerability and passion; there is boldness and sweetness. There is a real person, not a cliché. She is probably the most exciting young actress working today.
There is some nudity in the film, most of it showcasing Dequenne's killer rack. It is all tastefully done, which is why I'm surprised the MPAA gave this a R rating. Usually films showing sex in an intelligent manner receive the NC-17 (Henry and June being a prime example). The French are more relaxed and at ease when it comes to sex in cinema. Sex scenes in American films tend to be vulgar (the American Pie series), obscene (Showgirls), or exploitative (Blue Velvet).
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer will cause much debate. The Housekeeper was filmed in Technovision. Technovision, along with its cousin Techniscope, is one of the more affordably priced anamorphic filmmaking techniques around. Unfortunately, with economy comes a few "side effects." Night or dark scenes will often have some grain. The image is susceptible to distortion, a problem that plagued many of the CinemaScope films of the 1950s.
That said, I think this is a fine transfer. As expected, there is some grain during dark scenes. However, it didn't distract or annoy me as the film unfolded and the rest of the film looks sharp and clean. Colors are subdued, but the desaturated color scheme was Berri's intention. It was a wise decision to not include a pan-and-scan version since Berri's widescreen compositions would be completely destroyed.
I was surprised by the inclusion of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. More often than not, foreign films are stuck with mono mixes. With the exception of one or two scenes, the audio sounds quite wonderful. The jazz-flavored score sounds terrific and most of the dialogue can be heard. (But since this is a French film, there are yellow English subtitles on the bottom bar.)
The keep case lists a "making-of" featurette as a special feature, but unless this is an Easter egg, it is not on the disc. What we do get is a theatrical trailer for the domestic release (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen) and previews for other Palm releases, most notably The Work of Director Spike Jonze. I can forgive the absence of a commentary track; it would most likely be in French, a language I barely comprehend. (Spanish is more my gig.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If I have one problem with The Housekeeper, it's with the ending. The film ends abruptly with no real resolution. Berri may have been trying to make a point by using it, but it only succeeds in infuriating the audience. It doesn't so much end as it just runs out of steam.
Does this mean that a typical happy ending was necessary? Not at all. What about a dark, sad finale? That's not necessary either. A satisfying "open" ending is possible; look at Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman. It is possible to leave the ending open and still satisfy an audience.
Maybe I'm making too much out of this. All I can testify to is my experience.
Despite this flaw, The Housekeeper is still one of 2003's best films. Palm Pictures' DVD is somewhat expensive, with a retail price of $24.99. A rental is a good place to start.
All charges are dismissed against The Housekeeper. In fact, this judge makes this film required viewing along with the Mazursky and Wilder films. It's high time this newer generation of filmmakers learns how to make a real romantic comedy.
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