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At the AFI National Film Theater

to Aug. 7

Before The Housekeeper, 69-year-old French director Claude Berri made Hard Off, a semiautobiographical consideration of Viagra and its discontents. That film hasn’t been seen in the United States, but it seems likely that it and The Housekeeper share similar dispositions. The tale of a crusty middle-aged man who slips almost effortlessly into a fleeting affair with a woman who’s perhaps 30 years younger, the new film has the rueful air of a story a guy might tell about himself—but only after waiting a few years for the pang to subside. It’s a short, simple movie, but one whose implications linger.

Berri adapted the story from a novel by Christian Oster, published in English as A Cleaning Woman. Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a Paris recording engineer who wakes up one day to realize that his wife, Constance (a cameo by Fat Girl director Catherine Breillat), has been gone for six months and that he hasn’t washed a dish or picked up a sock since she left. At a bakery near his Left Bank apartment, Jacques tears one strip from a fringed ad for housekeeping services. When Jacques and she meet, Laura (Emilie Dequenne, the fierce star of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes’ Rosetta) quickly admits that she’s never worked as a maid. He hires her anyway, and he soon expands her hours. Then Laura asks a rather big favor: Her boyfriend is about to kick her out, so she needs a place to live. Jacques seems like the kind of guy who could say no, but it turns out that he isn’t. Bacri, who rarely works in films that he and his wife, Agnès Jaoui, don’t have a hand in scripting, uaually plays chattier roles; here he conveys the essence of the quietly overwhelmed Jacques mostly with guarded scowls and discreet looks of wonder.

Laura’s taste for Gallic hiphop and dumb TV shows clashes with Jacques’ preferences—professional as well as personal—for classical music and cool jazz, and he doesn’t like her multicolored hair, either. One night, she hazards to kiss him, and a sexual affair commences. Despite this new intimacy, the relationship remains casual. Although it’s Laura who talks—earnestly but superficially—of love, it’s Jacques who begins to feel attached. (He looks profoundly disappointed one evening when she isn’t home for dinner.) Confused, Jacques announces that he’s going to visit his friend Ralph (Jacques Frantz) in Brittany. Tearfully, Laura insists on coming along. Jacques reluctantly agrees, and they head to Quiberon. There the two mismatched lovers appear to be a couple, and so they become one. But there are many distractions at seaside resorts, and when Laura is left alone she quickly finds new companions. And the beach, although a place for self-analysis and reinvention in the films of Berri’s countryman Eric Rohmer, does not transform the terse, uptight Jacques.

Barely 90 minutes long, The Housekeeper sketches Jacques and Laura quickly, and it budgets only a few moments for Constance, Roger, and a few other players, most of them brokenhearted middle-aged women. (The part of the cartoonish Roger, who lives with and paints portraits of chickens, was originally larger; Berri wisely pruned it, first when writing the script and then during the editing.) Although Dequenne brings nearly as much presence to aimless Laura as she did to purposeful Rosetta, this isn’t her film. Without delving too intrusively into his mind, the director takes the viewpoint of Jacques, a man who’s as alone on the Métro as on a crowded beach—or in bed with Laura.

If the young woman seems less than a fully realized character, that’s how Jacques sees her. He asks her few questions about her life, and Berri doesn’t let us know more about Laura than Jacques does. Aside from youth and attractiveness, her principal quality is a sense of possibility: Whereas Jacques is shattered by change—even change in a new and clearly not long-term routine—she’s barely ruffled. The Housekeeper’s sense of loss and dislocation is Jacques’; its open-endedness, however, is Laura’s.

In many ways, Ambush is a familiar sort of battlefield epic. Yet the movie, the second in the AFI’s Second Chances series of recent European films that never got American distribution, recounts an almost unknown chapter in World War II history: In 1942, with the Soviets retreating from the Germans, Finnish troops drove Soviet forces from Finland—and kept on going. Distinctively, director Olli Saarela observes the action from a distance, depicting the characters as transient intruders in the vast (and widescreen) northern forest; he often films combat scenes in long shots without frantic cutting. The tale is visceral nonetheless, especially during its final action sequence, when the advance patrol led by Lt. Eero Perkola (Peter Franzén) must fight its way through Russian lines to reunite with Finnish troops.

Introduced at a Baltic beach, Eero’s squad is a typical war-movie lineup of complementary and antagonistic types. There are an experienced sergeant and his untested son, a communist and a right-winger, an indomitable hero and a trigger-happy coward. Outfitted with bicycles, antique rifles, and machine guns, the squad is sent on patrol into Soviet Keralia, unsure of just what its goal is. Near and perhaps behind enemy lines, the Finns at first encounter peasants, wounded Soviet soldiers, and possible booby traps, but no active enemy resistance. Though there are no jungles or rice paddies, many of these episodes are similar to ones from Vietnam War flicks.

Early on, Eero is surprised to encounter Kaarina (Irina Björklund), his perfect-cheekboned fiancée, who’s a member of the women’s auxiliary. He asks the local commanding officer to send the women away from the front, little realizing that this means transporting them into danger. The convoy carrying Kaarina is ambushed by partisans, and Eero later gets a report that all the women were killed. With Kaarina presumed dead, the laconic lieutenant turns a little more brooding—and brutal—but tries to keep his composure. Having witnessed the attack but not Kaarina’s death, the viewer has reason to expect that the two lovers will be eventually united.

That’s the sort of film this is. It’s not only about World War II, it also has a World War II-era sensibility, which insists that everything will turn out for the best—at least for the major characters. Saarela doesn’t share the bleak irony of the Kaurismäki brothers, virtually the only other Finnish filmmakers of note. Yet the director is almost as cool as a Kaurismäki—which is one of the things that distinguishes Ambush from old-Hollywood World War II fare: Eero’s squad faces a series of routine war-movie situations, yet the picturesque terrain, arctic light, and Saarela’s stylistic poise make the film at least look like something we’ve never seen before. CP