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By David DiCerto
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- A middle-aged Frenchman, after being recently dumped by his wife, takes a chance on romance when he becomes involved with the much younger woman he hires to clean his apartment in "The Housekeeper" (Palm).

Director Claude Berri's spin on May-December mating avoids saccharine sentimentalism and contrived cliches, while painting a warm, at times funny, portrait of a man looking for love in all the wrong places.

Based on a novel by Christian Oster, the story revolves around Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a sound engineer trying to cope with his wife, Constance (Catherine Breillat), leaving him for another man. His life, like his messy Parisian apartment, has fallen into shambles. When not working at the recording studio, Jacques licks his wounds at the corner bistro with his friend Claire (Brigitte Catillon), herself a loser at love.

Determined to get his disorganized life back on track, he hires the services of a housekeeper, Laura (Emilie Dequenne), a French tart with a personality more bubbly than champagne and a smile that outshines the city of lights. Though she is half his age, Jacques is soon reinvigorated by her boundless energy and joie de vivre -- not to mention her curvaceous good looks and tight-fitting clothes. But fascination becomes attraction when, after learning that she has been dumped by her boyfriend and has nowhere to stay, he agrees to let her move in, opening the door for intergenerational hanky-panky.

Jacques is at first reluctant to dive into so-seemingly incompatible a relationship -- she reads celebrity tabloids, he reads Dostoyevsky -- but soon Laura is doing more in his bedroom than fluffing the pillows. When Constance pays a visit pleading with Jacques to take her back, he panics and hastily packs his bags, heading off with Laura to a beachside resort in Brittany. Though Jacques is wary of having his heart broken again, the warm sun slowly thaws his reservations about their age difference. As they wander through the countryside, giddy as newlyweds, Jacques begins to believe that the romance can work. But love, like brie, if left out in the sun, runs the risk of melting. Jacques soon discovers what at first appeared to merely be a gap was, in actuality, a generation chasm.

Both Bacri and Dequenne inhabit their roles comfortably and manage to steer clear of typical generation-gap banter -- with the one exception being a somewhat contrived scene where Jacques escapes Laura's blaring techno music by retreating into his bedroom and putting on a Hayden violin concerto and some jazz.

The film tenderly addresses the basic human need for love and companionship. While some might interpret Jacques' actions as a textbook midlife crisis -- a desperate attempt to bolster his aging ego by flaunting his trophy nymphet, thus reasserting his wounded sexual prowess -- the filmmaker seems much more concerned with exploring the vagaries of the human heart, charting its ebbs and flows between passion and pain. Bacri invests Jacques with a haggard vulnerability and humanity that convey the inner void left by his wife's departure, an emptiness he tries to fill by striking up chance conversations with women at sidewalk cafes and ultimately by risking romance with Laura. By comparison, Laura is a child, incapable of any real commitment -- in her immaturity, she repeatedly and misguidedly equates casual sex for love.

Like the works of Camus or Sartre, the film is tinged with the scent of existential angst. By his choice of final images -- Jacques sitting on the sand, book-ended by two women and surrounded by throngs of happy beachgoers, but weighed down by his crushing solitude -- the filmmaker seems to suggest that ultimately we are all alone. This pessimism, coupled with the film's muddying of the distinction between authentic love and carnal desire, is regrettable and may prove off-putting to Catholic viewers.

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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