Scaling back after the mammoth task of producing monster hit “Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra,” Gallic industry titan Claude Berri returns to directing with the modest but appealing romantic comedy-drama “A Housekeeper.” Leads Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne establish an awkward yet tender odd-couple dynamic, their accomplished work serving to distinguish the familiar material. Classy production should perform decently on home turf when it opens later this year and cross Euro borders wherever middlebrow French fare still commands an audience.
Successful music studio sound engineer Jacques (Bacri), whose wife left him for another man, is having trouble keeping his Paris apartment in order. He responds to a bulletin board notice, hiring easygoing Laura (Dequenne) to clean his house. When he increases her hours and finds himself sharing space with the young woman on his days off, Jacques is torn between annoyance at the intrusion into his peaceful domain and pleasure at having female company again after the bitter experience of marital meltdown.
Revealing that her own relationship has gone bust and she has to leave her apartment, Laura succeeds in convincing reluctant Jacques to let her move in temporarily. While continuing to look for other housing solutions for her, Jacques grows increasingly accustomed to Laura’s presence. She only partly wipes away the reserve between them by slipping into his bed without any preliminary signals.
Unable to completely open himself up again to romantic feelings, Jacques decides he needs air and organizes a summer break on the Brittany coast. Laura convinces him to take her along but while she’s unafraid to commit, Jacques’ lingering caution and reserve with her cause problems. Ending is a little weak though it quietly underlines the poignancy of Jacques’ emergence from the experience without stripping him of dignity or heaping blame on Laura.
Popular actor-writer Bacri (“The Taste of Others”) strikes a fine, sympathetic balance between Jacques’ cautious, uptight and rigid aspects and his inability to reach out fully for the intimacy he clearly craves. Berri’s script and Bacri’s characterization shrewdly sidestep the midlife crisis cliches of standard older man-younger woman romances. In marked contrast to her furious turn in “Rosetta,” Dequenne is all relaxed composure and sweet openness. Director Catherine Breillat appears briefly as Jacques’ repentant ex-wife.
Aside from Frederic Botton’s dull, old-fashioned piano score, production values are tidy, with Berri’s conventional but polished direction matched by Eric Gautier’s clean widescreen lensing.