The lives of an ordinary, small-town couple are changed forever when they spend an evening at a nightclub and watch a brother-and-sister drag act. That's the premise of this probing dramatic comedy from director Anne Fontaine, which should perform solidly at home after fest unspoolings and stands a chance of limited release in territories where French films have a following. Films about changes in sexual orientation have been a staple of French cinema in recent years, often in the form of comedy. Though "Dry Cleaning" has many amusing moments, it's ultimately quite a bleak depiction of the torment of maladjusted sexuality.

The lives of an ordinary, small-town couple are changed forever when they spend an evening at a nightclub and watch a brother-and-sister drag act. That’s the premise of this probing dramatic comedy from director Anne Fontaine, which should perform solidly at home after fest unspoolings and stands a chance of limited release in territories where French films have a following.

Films about changes in sexual orientation have been a staple of French cinema in recent years, often in the form of comedy. Though “Dry Cleaning” has many amusing moments, it’s ultimately quite a bleak depiction of the torment of maladjusted sexuality.

Nicole and Jean-Marie Kunstler (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling) have been operating a dry cleaning establishment in a small town for 15 years. They have a son and seem happy enough, though they work long hours and the spark has clearly gone from the marriage. One evening, along with other local storekeepers, they visit the Ranch, a local night spot where the Queens of the Night, an amateur brother-and-sister act, perform, miming to a popular Sylvie Vartan-Johnny Hallyday song: Loic (Stanislas Merhar) does Vartan while his sister Marilyn (Mathilde Seigner) is Hallyday.

The Kunstlers are a bit amazed, even more so next day when the handsome Loic comes into their shop with a gold lame dress from which he wants a stain removed. He’s flirtatious with Nicole, and suggests the couple catch their act again, as he and his sister are in town only for a short while. They do, and wind up accompanying the siblings back to their hotel room for what looks like a foursome, until the strait-laced Jean-Marie calls a halt to the proceedings. He’s then appalled when Loic calmly demands payment for services rendered, even if the services were unconsummated.

Time goes by, and the Kunstlers are restless. When Jean-Marie suggests a rare holiday to the Swiss city of Basel, where the Queens are now appearing, Nicole jumps at the idea. There they find that Marilyn is leaving her brother for greener pastures and that without her there’s no act; so it seems natural to invite Loic to stay with them and to help out in the business.

What follows is mostly amusing until the unexpected climax in which matters get very out of hand. But along the way there’s plenty of dry humor to be derived from watching the way the seemingly bisexual and ultra-flirtatious Loic carries on in the home of this staid, middle-aged pair.

This is the kind of material Claude Chabrol might have turned into a dark comedy-thriller, but Fontaine is more interested in exploring the way a stale marriage is transformed by the arrival of an off-the-wall outsider. She succeeds in making convincing the unlikely idea that such a conservative pair as the Kunstlers would invite a drag performer to live in their home. In “Dry Cleaning,” mundane, everyday events become exotic and rather perilous.

Miou-Miou and especially Berling are very good as the “ordinary” marrieds who are equally entranced by the attractive, sexually ambivalent cuckoo in their nest, while Merhar has devilish fun in the pivotal role of Loic, who becomes a combination son, lover and friend during the course of the drama.

Production values are modest but adequate.

Dry Cleaning

French - Spanish

Production

An AMLF release of a Cinea-Les Films Alain Sarde (Paris)/Maestranza Films (Madrid) production, with the participation of CNC, Canal Plus. (International sales: Flach Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Philippe Carcassone, Alain Sarde. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Screenplay, Gilles Taurand, Fontaine.

Crew

Camera (color), Caroline Champetier; editor, Luc Barnier; production design, Antoine Platteau; costumes, Elisabeth Tavernier; choreography, Blanca Li; sound (Dolby SR), Jean-Claude Laureux, Jean-Pierre Laforce; associate producer, Antonio P. Perez; assistant director, Beatrice Humbert; casting, Frederique Moidon. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 1997. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Nicole Kunstler - Miou-Miou Jean-Marie Kunstler - Charles Berling Loic - Stanislas Merhar Marilyn - Mathilde Seigner

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