Helmer Manuel Poirier ("Western," "Byways") continues to be drawn to stories of men going through midlife crises; fortunately, with "The House," he's hit on a more engaging tale than his recent efforts.

Helmer Manuel Poirier (“Western,” “Byways”) continues to be drawn to stories of men going through midlife crises; fortunately, with “The House,” he’s hit on a more engaging tale than his recent efforts. Slowly building his story of a divorced man’s relationship with two sisters and the family abode they’re about to lose, Poirier brings it all to a satisfactory emotional level after a lukewarm beginning, unexpectedly hitting at some home truths despite occasional meanderings. Local biz was weak after late August opening, though fests may have better luck.

A recent separation from wife Delphine (Elodie Hesme) has left Malo (Poirier muse Sergi Lopez) floating through life, with no moorings apart from the three children he sees on weekends. He’s unhappy in Paris, where the walls of his new apartment are still bare and boxes remain unpacked, and he’s considering moving to the country.

On a drive out of town with friend Remi (Bruno Salomone), he spots a notice for a house to be auctioned by court order. Together, they explore the pleasant, solid home, and Malo becomes intrigued when he finds a child’s yearning letter to her father among miscellaneous papers in an open carton. Back in Paris, he locates the writer, now grown: Cloe (Berenice Bejo), an unhappy woman living with her sister Laura (Barbara Schulz) and dreading the coming sale of the family home.

Cloe’s childhood letter, written soon after her parents’ painful divorce, speaks to Malo’s own concerns, and he’s drawn to Cloe’s pain. As the two fall into an unexpected relationship, he determines to buy the house himself, resulting in a straightforward but nerve-wracking auction reminiscent of “The Skin Game.”

Poirier plays with the concept of whether memories are portable or site-specific, and Malo could be representing the Peruvian-born helmer’s own feelings, especially when he explains to Cloe that, as an immigrant child, you learn not to get attached to places. Pic’s interest lies in how Malo’s attitude changes through exposure to Cloe’s intense need to hold on to the house where she grew up.

Side characters, however, including Malo’s g.f. Noemie (Florence Darel), are underwritten and ultimately confusing. First half in particular takes some time to get going, but tension builds as the auction date approaches, and there’s a striking believability about the ways the various characters cope with the possibilities resulting from the sale.

Laurent Cantet’s regular d.p., Pierre Milon, keeps visuals simple and coolly observational, creating a calm world in keeping with Malo’s unfocused outlook. Songs by emigre Mexican crooner Lhasa nicely complement the mood.

The House

France

Production

A Diaphana Films, France 3 Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus, in association with Uni Etoile 4, Soficinema 3. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Michel Saint-Jean. Directed, written by Manuel Poirier.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Pierre Milon; editor, Simon Jacquet; music, Lhasa, Jean Massicotte; production designer, Capucine Flavin; costume designer, Stephanie Watrignant; sound (Dolby SRD), Jean-Paul Bernard. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 21, 2007. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Sergi Lopez, Bruno Salomone, Berenice Bejo, Barbara Schulz, Cecile Rebboah, Florence Darel, Cedrik Lanoe, Sam Desarmegnin, Juliette Poirier, Leo Poirier, Elodie Hesme.
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