Anne Fontaine’s new film, Dry Cleaning stimulates ongoing thinking and plants a solid emotional whammy that cannot be ignored. The premise is reasonably easy to describe. A late thirties-ish, attractive young couple are living a dull, provincial life in a dull, provincial town. They’ve been married for fifteen years, have an ordinary son, an ordinary live-in mother-in-law who is prone to sing charmlessly, and they run an ordinary dry cleaning business. Money is tight, vacations endlessly put off because they’re just too expensive. One lives within one’s means, within the rules; life is ordered and roles are understood.
Enter an androgynous young man, Loic (Stanislas Merhar in a notable debut), brought up in foster homes, performing (on and offstage) with his sister, with whom there has been an incestuous relationship. Attractive and sensual, they have made their lives as transvestite perfomers in nightclubs and sexual performers with paying clients. They live from club to club, from hand to mouth. There are few rules, life is unordered and in the moment, roles are hazily defined, changeable. A different moral order from that of our dry cleaning friends.
With a screenplay by Fontaine and Gilles Taurand (Wild Reeds, Les Voleurs) that patiently and credibly crosses the paths of these people from different worlds, they find themselves in a menage that unsettles the settled. Loic’s sister breaks with him and Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) offers him a job in the cleaning shop. Loic’s emotional neediness is apparent. He has never had a family, nor the comfort that stability offers – just the opposite of his hosts, locked into their secure petite bourgeois ways. He turns out to be a superb worker and wends his way into the life of the family.
Nicole (Miou-Miou), the wife, we see to be more open to alternatives, interested in change, experimentation, while Jean-Marie, clearly tempted, is resistant to stepping outside his known boundaries. The scene is thus set for these three to work through their destinies; the film seems to gather momentum with a downward spiral of inevitability. CV will not spoil it for you by telling more.
That this is a carefully wrought and thoughtfully constructed movie is evident. The performances by the three leads, in difficult roles requiring subtle interpretations, are first rate; a less accomplished cast could easily have missed the emotional detail and psychological insight that make the unfolding events believable and give them weight beyond that of an obvious morality tale.
Fontaine leaves a deliberate ambiguity to the conclusion. There is no obvious right and wrong here, no good guy or bad guy; what happens grows out of who we have learned these characters to be. There are complex emotional needs, repression, constraining life circumstances. We can’t always choose who and how we love; there are some choices we may or may not be free to make – either way, we are never free of the consequences.