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The Housekeeper (December 16/03)

Simple yet strangely effective, The Housekeeper is essentially the definition of a slice-of-life film. We're dropped into the lives of two characters, observe them for a while, and that's it. The movie's abrupt ending does feel a little jarring, but that's only because we've come to really care about this pair.

Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is living a solitary existence; his wife left him six months ago and he's been unable to start up another relationship. After the mess in his apartment gets to be too much for him to handle, he begins looking for a housekeeper. He winds up hiring Laura (Emilie Dequenne), a feisty and independent 20-something woman that seems to take pleasure out of cleaning Jacques' home. The two go about their lives for a while, but eventually begin having an affair.

Storywise, that's about it. Writer/director Claude Berri (working from the novel by Christian Oster) throws in a few other quirky characters - including Jacques' ex (played by notorious French director Catherine Breillat) - but the movie remains focused primarily on Jacques and Laura. And though the film's premise seems to be inviting thriller elements (ie Laura becomes fixated on Jacques, or Jacques refuses to let Laura go), the story never goes in that direction (which was, admittedly, something of a surprise).

Part of what makes this sparse story so interesting are the performances by Bacri and Dequenne, which are almost perfect in their execution. Bacri, in particular, does a nice job of taking a character that should have been unlikable and turns him into a compelling figure. As for Dequenne, Laura doesn't seem to be someone that we'd want to spend time with - she listens to loud techno music and smokes a lot - but she eventually becomes intriguing enough that we're able to buy the fact that Jacques would be willing to hang around her for so long.

Right from the opening moments of The Housekeeper, it becomes clear that Berri's going to take his time in developing these characters. Interestingly enough, though, the first time we see Jacques - in a montage as he goes about his day-to-day routine - it says volumes about the sort of person that he is. He's a quiet and reserved man, with obvious problems in dealing with the opposite sex (we see him clumsily attempt to pick up women at a local cafe). His reticence in having a relationship with Laura beyond the physical is understandable; aside from the age difference (he's clearly in his 50s), Jacques' trepidation certainly has a lot to do with the fact that his wife left him.

It's not exactly a light movie, but Berri does include a few surprising moments of comedy (particularly in the guise of Jacques' artist friend, who exclusively paints chickens and serves up poultry for dinner - you do the math) and though the movie never quite becomes anything more than a pleasantly diverting way to spend 90 minutes, The Housekeeper is a refreshing alternative to the myriad of overcranked stories churned out by Hollywood.

out of