French Twist

Squeeze Play: Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne in The Housekeeper.Photo: Courtesy of Palm Pictures

Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri), the protagonist of Claude Berri’s delicately observed comedy The Housekeeper, is a fiftyish sound engineer whose apartment, since his wife left him six months ago, is in dire need of a cleanup. He doesn’t really want his wife back—not even when she makes the offer. What he wants is a semblance of order in his new, unattached life, which includes much time spent in a corner bistro. (Where would French film be without corner bistros?) He hires a novice housekeeper, 20-year-old Laura (Émilie Dequenne), and they become live-in lovers, going off to vacation in Brittany, where the hard reality of their relationship sinks in.

Berri doesn’t provide a lot of wink-wink humor at the expense of these oddly matched lovebirds. For one thing, it’s not exactly a love match. Jacques is a realist—or at least imagines himself to be. When Laura seduces him, he accepts the sex as a happy moment and not as a commitment to anything. Afterward, he acts as though it never happened. Jacques is still shell-shocked from the disintegration of his marriage and by the ways in which love can go wrong; he’s in no hurry to reenter the fray. Laura, on the other hand, is ardent for romance; unlike Jacques, she has recovered nicely from a recent breakup.

On the surface, The Housekeeper is a bit schematic: Jacques likes jazz and classical music, Laura likes techno; he’s dogged, she’s frisky; and so on. But these polarities aren’t milked, and they feel true—this is one of the few older-man-younger-woman movies to play up the age difference in ways that don’t feel smirky. Jacques’s unease at Laura’s adoration is tempered by his seasoned intuition that she will adore many other men in her life. Laura may seem like a burst of youthful exuberance, but she has a practiced way around Jacques. Her guilelessness is a tactic for survival. She cares deeply for him, and yet she also gets what she wants—an income, a vacation, a lover.

Berri is very good at bringing out his characters’ emotional contradictions so that we seem to be discovering them right along with Jacques and Laura. It’s not clear to us right away what a sensualist Laura is, for example, but it should have been: Dequenne has the kind of ripeness that Renoir would have craved to capture on canvas. When Laura is with Jacques on the Brittany coast, her youth becomes resplendent. Ironically, she never looks more fully herself than when she is paired with him. Bacri’s performance is masterfully controlled. Jacques’s feelings for Laura seem to encompass, in subtle shifts, virtually all the feelings an older man can have for a young woman. He knows that what he has with her is transitory, even if Laura doesn’t, and his attempts to hold on to his pride, his lust, his affections—even his sadness—are palpable. When Laura plays beach volleyball or goes clubbing while he waits on the sidelines, you can see how difficult it is for him to accept his outsider status, and yet he must believe it is that very status that attracted her in the first place. Jacques gets his comeuppance in the end, but the sequence is so deftly handled that what at first seems like a loss ends up looking a lot like a rebirth.

The ten years since Terminator 2: Judgment Day haven’t changed a thing: Even Arnold’s pecs have the same tone. Considering all the Republican fund-raising dinners that this likely California gubernatorial candidate has attended over the years, his physical achievement is more daunting than ever—it trumps any of the special effects in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Of which there are many—some more special than others. Skynet, a conglomeration of killing machines that controls Earth in the future, has sent back into the present its latest model T-X Terminator. Fittingly, the T-X (Kristanna Loken) shows up first in a Beverly Hills boutique window and assumes a glacé supermodel guise. (To judge from this movie, the future is already here; T-X looks indistinguishable from every other woman on Rodeo Drive.) Schwarzenegger’s T-101 soon follows in pursuit, though his killing skills can’t match hers; he is, after all, an earlier model, proving once again that planned obsolescence can be bad for your health.

When the first Terminator came out in 1984, the well-worn sci-fi notion of machines trying to take over people was still relatively novel for a new generation of moviegoers, and the film, directed by James Cameron, had the added comic bonus of featuring Schwarzenegger as a cyborg who was a lot more human than any human he ever played. T2: Judgment Day was less funny and a lot bulkier; it seemed steroid-pumped.

The latest installment is directed by Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571), who appears to have made the first $170 million B movie, complete with clunky dialogue (“The future has not been written,” we are reminded early on, although I bet Hollywood has already taken out an option on it). Despite some impressively expensive-looking effects, such as the magnetized meltdown of a cyborg, most of the movie’s big set pieces are car chases and shootouts and mano a mano square-offs.

I don’t mind the movie’s retro-ness, but I wish Mostow didn’t take pulp so seriously. His two young co-stars, played by Nick Stahl and Claire Danes as future resistance leaders and chief targets of T-X, have a worried intensity one rarely sees this side of the daytime soaps. More throwaway gags would have helped. Instead, we often get jokey references to the better jokes from the earlier movies, as when T-101 announces, “I’m back.” This sort of self-referential stuff usually signals the last gasp of a series, though T3 seems poised for a sequel. Now it’s all up to the good people of the state of California.

In the new Dreamworks animated feature Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, the major characters are voiced by movie stars, as is usual lately, and as usual, I couldn’t always tell who the players were without a scorecard. Brad Pitt is said to be “playing” Sinbad—the animators even claim to have modeled his movements on the actor’s—but his midwestern accent and apparently his entire lower range have been bleached out. I did, however, enjoy Michelle Pfeiffer as the malicious goddess Eris, though at times she sounded like Catherine Zeta-Jones, who, as fate would have it, was already playing Sinbad’s paramour, Marina. People who see Sinbad for its star power—a big selling point in the movie’s marketing campaign—are being oversold. A better reason is for a few of the animated sequences, especially Sinbad’s cascading battle with a sea serpent. But for real wit and astonishment in the animated field these days, look to the marvelous Pixar movies (the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, etc.) and the work of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away).

‘This is just like C-SPAN, except I’m not bored,” giggles Reese Witherspoon’s Elle about her Capitol Hill adventures in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. That pretty much sums up the movie, too. Witherspoon still knows how to get laughs with Elle’s cast-iron innocence and megawatt smile and outfits that are color-coordinated with her pet chihuahua’s, but there’s also an unneeded dose of moralism in the mix. The filmmakers want us to know that Washington is a dirty place and that idealism can clean it up. Come to think of it, that’s about as boring as anything on C-SPAN. I realize Legally Blonde 2 was not intended as scathing political satire, but I wish someone out there in movieland did indeed have just such an intention these days. (TV is much better at it, with The Daily Show leading the way.) Right now, making a bubbleheaded comedy set in Washington seems almost like a capitulation to the powers that be.

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is so relentlessly giddy and hyperactive that it doesn’t really need a movie review—it needs a prescription. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu don’t seem to realize that they are already charming just being themselves. The movie turns them into charm machines. They could probably take down the Terminator.

French Twist