October 19, 2003

The Housekeeper

Starring Jean-Pierre Bacri and Émilie Dequenne

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Are people necessarily wiser as they grow older? Good question, especially when it concerns matters of the heart. The Housekeeper, faithfully based on a novel by Christian Oster, explores that question through the unlikely romance between a lonely middle-aged divorcee and his twenty-something maid. Though seemingly slight and harmless, the film ultimately conveys a buoyant sense of sadness that will stay with its viewers long after they have left the theatre.

Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has been in a rut since his wife left him for another man. His work routine hasn’t been affected, but his living quarters are becoming increasingly disarrayed. He comes across a flyer for a maid seeking employment, and arranges to meet her. Laura (Émilie Dequenne) shows up with a terrible dye job and dirt on her face, but he hires her anyway. She soon asks to move in with him after breaking up with her boyfriend. Reluctantly, he takes her in. The two of them couldn’t be more different. He prefers listening to jazz and reading, while she enjoys full-blasting pop music and watching trashy TV shows. They begin fooling around, and he tells her it’s not love. Regardless, he soon falls for her.

The film seems to be an odd addition to the filmography of Claude Berri, who is best known for sweeping historical epics such as Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. But Berri proves very capable of handling a small and bittersweet contemporary piece such as this film. There are a number of scenes that take place in crowded settings, such as subways and cafes. And Berri always manages to capture the central characters’ studied alienation experienced against those bustling urban backdrops.

With a stoic exterior yet also capable of exhibiting nuanced emotions, Barci is perfect in the film’s lead. During the film’s early scenes, he is able to convey a sense of loss and loneliness through the most mundane routines. As his character gradually lets down his guard, Barci also subtly allows a little tenderness to beam through his world-weariness. Dequenne, best known for her gritty performance in Rosetta, is nearly unrecognizable here as the cute and lively housekeeper.

The film eventually closes on a haunting image, as Jacques finds himself sitting between Laura and the mother of her new boyfriend. Jacques seems somewhat hapless and pathetic in the situation, since the older woman mistakes him for Laura’s father. The May-December romance ultimately does not last, and Jacques is disappointed again after giving love another chance. The Housekeeper concludes that you may love again, but you don’t always learn.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.