** stars 97 minutes | Rated: R
In French with English subtitles
Opened: Friday, May 28, 1999
Directed by Anne Fontaine

Starring Miou-Miou, Charles Berling, Stanislas Merhar & Mathilde Seinger

Charles Berling:
"Ridicule" (1996)

Midlife marriage marred by swaggering, young sexual interloper in aimless import

By Rob Blackwelder

Sexual tension seeps from the sprockets of every frame of film in "Dry Cleaning," a French import about a 40-something husband and wife on the verge of mutual midlife crises who are seeking some way to revive and rivet their humdrum lives.

Their desires start out simply enough -- the wife (Miou-Miou, "The Eighth Day") just wants to take a little vacation -- but with her workaholic husband pinching pennies, she starts locally by dragging him someplace exotic they would never otherwise go, a local cabaret featuring cross-dressing, lip-syncing strippers.

But more deeply buried urges find their simple visit to said cabaret leading to a bizarre live-in relationship with one of the ambiguously bisexual performers that upsets the balance of their marriage and begets melancholy, discontent, restrained jealousy, rage and eventually tragedy.

The wife begins a boy toy affair with the supremely untalented performer (Stanislas Merhar) -- one of those fay, barely legal, heroin chic, Calvin Klein model types who just exudes sex. The husband (Charles Berling, "Ridicule") tolerates her behavior -- which has inspired much tongue-wagging in the provincial town where they run a dry cleaners -- in part because he loves her deeply and is afraid she might chose the boy over him if he confronted her, and in part because he's harboring (and trying to bury) an attraction to their guest himself.

The film, directed by Anne Fontaine ("Augustin"), follows every nuance of the toll this takes on the couple, who begin the film still adorably in love after 15 years of marriage. Yet it often feels aimless and even pointless, in part because the interloper's motives for trifling with the confused marrieds' emotions -- other than being a wildly dysfunctional deviant who needs a place to crash -- are never very clear despite his pivotal role in the story.

Maybe I didn't get it somehow, because while I like to think of myself as a foreign film kind of guy, "Dry Cleaning" felt more foreign than most. I got the feeling when the credits rolled that I must have missed something.

The performances of Miou-Miou and Berling are both fascinating for their pent-up authenticity, which carries the movie a long way, but the story just did nothing for me. I never understood why I was spending 97 minutes with these people.


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