A sort of new wave hangover seems to be troubling France in recent years. Formerly lissome veterans of the sexual revolution are discovering with horror that they, too, can get old, and that knowledge seems to have put them off sex. Look at Catherine Breillat, with her nerveless urbanites glumly prodding one another's soft apertures in Romance. Or novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning novel The Elementary Particles might as well have been subtitled Why Meaningless Coupling Won't Save Your Soul From Its Grotesque Prison Of Decaying Flesh.
Now director Claude Berri is swinging on the same star. The Housekeeper is about a sour-faced, middle-aged sound engineer named Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri), abandoned by his wife (played with muffled desperation by Breillat). He ogles younger women and lives in a squalid heap of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry in his fabulous Paris apartment.
Jacques answers an ad from a young woman looking for housekeeping work (Emilie Dequenne, from Rosetta, all grown up), and watches her shimmy around in skimpy outfits as she sweeps his floors. Not surprisingly, she moves in and seduces him. Also not surprisingly, it ends unhappily.
What is surprising is the way the characters play out. The titular housekeeper almost doesn't qualify as a character at all - she's more of a device, a wide-eyed cipher in a mauve bikini. She's seen exclusively from the point of view of a singularly self-absorbed and incurious middle-aged man: she's young, pretty and lives only to meet his needs. Why that is we never really learn. He doesn't ask.
This would all be reprehensible, but if the camera won't let us past her glossy surface to show us what she sees in him, it won't let us forget what he really is either. It's merciless in its portraits of Jacques and his 50-something friends, their lined faces and beer guts. And they're not much deeper than the girl, bundles of appetites, illusions and regrets, not so much people as symptoms, emblems of a deluded, defeated generation. When Jacques is finally forced to acknowledge his age, the effect is positively cruel.
The message is blunt but not terribly deep: having sex with young people won't keep you from getting old and dying; nobody stays beautiful for long. The way the story's told is misanthropic and depressing. But in a cinema whose rhetoric on aging consists almost exclusively of stories about Jack Nicholson achieving redemption, the occasional cold dash of Gallic pessimism can also be refreshing.
THE Housekeeper directed by Claude Berri, produced by Berri, with Jean-Pierre Bacri, Emilie Dequenne and Brigitte Catillon. A CNC/Studio Canal production, a Mongrel Media release. 86 minutes. Rating: NNN