A mousy, middle-aged caretaker travels from the Baltics to the City of Light to look after a serious piece of work in “A Lady in Paris,” from Estonian filmmaker Ilmar Raag (“The Class”). Jeanne Moreau aces the role of a prickly, elderly Estonian who doesn’t want anyone to look after her in her adopted home country, much less a woman from her long-abandoned place of birth, but the wafer-thin story offers too little beyond an enjoyable reminder of the actress’s talent. Older auds might appreciate the film’s familiarity and elegant intimacy.
An unnecessarily protracted first reel is set in wintry Estonia, where nondescript divorcee Anne (Laine Magi) finds herself alone when the bedridden mother she looked after for years gives up the ghost. As if on cue, the nursing home where Anne used to work contacts her with an unexpected job offer to look after an elderly compatriot in France.
Anne is picked up at the airport by French cafe owner Stephane (Patrick Pineau), who drives her to the tastefully appointed Parisian apartment of her nominal employer, Frida (Moreau). The new caretaker is left with very few instructions, apart from the information that she can’t let Frida go near the medicine cabinet, and that her new boss can be “a little direct.” This turns out to be a major understatement, as the haughty Frida hurls one-liners at Anne and refuses to speak Estonian.
The screenplay, credited to Agnes Feuvre, Lise Macheboeuf and Raag, and inspired by the experiences of the helmer’s mother, hardly avoids the beaten path. The remainder of this slight, foreseeable if fairly enjoyable story essentially consists of Anne putting up with Frida’s colorful tantrums and working out that Stephane’s relationship with the haughty old dame is not what Anne assumed it was.
None of the film’s small-scale revelations, including the reason Frida became a pariah among her Estonian friends in France, carries much weight, and the gradual transformation of both women (the titular “Lady” could of course apply to either) feels less like a surprise than like an unavoidable consequence of the plot’s rather basic setup.
Director Raag, who made his debut with the visceral, unrelenting murder-in-high-school tale “The Class,” here goes the opposite route, achieving an unhurried classicism in synch with the plush setting. His cinematic tricks are now less in-your-face but no less effective; shots lengthen as Anne gradually finds her footing, just as her outfits grow more stylish the more time she spends in the fashion capital.
Though Moreau doesn’t show up until 20 minutes in, she looks luminous and steals every scene she’s in, seeming to savor each line on her tongue before spitting it out with evident relish. Playing an immigrant in a foreign land who, toward the end of her life, finds confidence by respecting her appearance and ingrained habits, the actress also allows a glimpse of humanity to escape from underneath her character’s steely demeanor. Opposite such an effortlessly layered performance, Magi is stuck with a bigger but also more predictable arc and none of the good comebacks to make up for it; ditto poor Pineau.
Indoors, most of the film is in the shallow-focus images typical of digital equipment, while the choice of some of the outdoor locations are particularly cliched, especially the shots of the Eiffel Tower combined with an accordion-led tune on the soundtrack.