Veteran French writer, director, and producer Claude Berri became a global arthouse favorite in the '80s and early '90s with historical epics like Jean De Florette and Germinal, but his work of late has returned to the small-scale, almost provincial comedies and romances that began his career four decades ago. A Housekeeper continues in this vein of micro-drama, telling the story of middle-aged recording engineer Jean-Pierre Bacri and his relationship with attractive live-in maid Émilie Dequenne. Dequenne, who played the title role in Rosetta a few years back, is almost unrecognizable in a role that allows her to smile and flirt. Bacri, balding and fussy, puts a light comic spin on his character, a jazz-loving, recently divorced neurotic sharing a small apartment with a hip-hop fan who favors cleavage-revealing blouses. Bacri is the sort who pre-cleans before his housekeeper comes over and then, without complaint, straightens up the places she missed when she leaves. Dequenne moves in to save on rent, and Bacri squirms at the complicated setup, acknowledging inwardly that he's basically paying a woman to be around him, but unsure whether to treat her as a guest or an employee. Even after they start sleeping together, his sense of propriety remains askew. Part of the problem is that Bacri deals with people and situations as though his ex-wife were still playing a major role in his life, which blocks him from taking Dequenne's affections seriously. The inevitable gap in their mutual commitment gradually ratchets up the tension in A Housekeeper–not to the chilling level of a François Ozon film, but at least to a mildly queasy point. Berri's work never really rises above the gradual or the mild, and it eventually settles gently into one of those elliptical conclusions that mark mainstream French cinema at its most tasteful and staid, but the film's fully realized performances and sharply observed moments make it a pleasure, albeit a minor one. A Housekeeper only seeks to sketch the fine points of a mismatched couple, and its artful composition is virtue enough.

Advertisement