Nicole and Jean-Marie Kunstler are bourgeois in a way that only the contemporary French seem to have mastered. Their lives, their clothes, even their faces are tastefully tidy. Their young son is borderline cherubic and seemingly well-adjusted. Nicole’s live-in mother is charmingly senile and grouchy in a nonthreatening way.
The couple run a dry cleaning establishment in a small town and business is good, if not great, as long as they’re willing to put in long hours and forgo vacations. But even normal people need a bit of fun, so one night the Kunstlers go to a newly opened nightclub in town, where they meet and befriend a cross-dressing brother and sister act – he making a rather good-looking woman, she a distinctly grotesque-looking man.
The sister takes off with another performer, but the brother, whose name is Loic, stays in town and eventually ends up working at the dry cleaning place, showing an unexpected talent for making a sharp crease. Loic is handsome in a soft-focus kind of a way that falls just short of being effeminate – he looks a little like Ralph Fiennes – and so we know it’s only a matter of time before he and Nicole will be coupling in a corner somewhere while the oblivious Jean-Marie is busy removing stains.
Dry Cleaning is the kind of closely observed relationship film we’ve come to expect from France these days, leisurely paced, nuanced, well-acted. Nicole is played by Miou-Miou, who ably conveys her ambiguous discontent, while Charles Berling, as Jean-Marie, seems less repressed than eminently sensible – he’s a decent sort who does what he’s been taught to do and, when things start to fall apart, his sad irritation is touching. And Stanislas Merhar gives a charismatic performance as the snake who enlivens their dull garden.
Unfortunately, the film’s denouement seems to come out of nowhere. A rupture involving Jean-Marie, it comes less from his character as written and performed than from writer-director Anne Fontaine’s desire to – literally, it turns out – stick it to the bourgeoisie. It’s "shocking" in a desultory way, a lapse not of taste but of imagination.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.