Friday, November 5, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Dry Cleaning': Some Steam Away From The Shop


Movie review XX 1/2 "Dry Cleaning," with Miou-Miou, Charles Berling, Stanislas Merhar, Mathilde Seigner. Directed by Anne Fontaine, from a screenplay by Fontaine and Gilles Taurand. Varsity, today through Sunday. In French, with English subtitles. 97 minutes. Not rated; contains sexual situations and brief nudity.

In Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" earlier this year, a wealthy New York husband wandered through a dark sexual underworld, in anger partly brought about by his wife's confession of emotional betrayal - but, for a film about sex, not much actually takes place. In Anne Fontaine's intriguing but uneven erotic drama "Dry Cleaning," similar territory is explored - but, since this is a French film, people actually get to have sex. Like "Eyes," though, nobody's having much fun.

Nicole and Jean-Marie (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling), a hard-working couple married for 15 years, run a dry-cleaning establishment in the small French town where they live with their young son and Jean-Marie's aging mother. One night, the mysterious Loic (Stanislas Merhar), a cross-dressing nightclub performer and paid gigolo, enters their lives.

Soon Nicole and Jean-Marie, after a series of erotic and somewhat menacing encounters that awaken some previously hidden desires, have taken Loic into their home and are coping with the impact of his sexual presence in their lives. It's your standard romantic triangle - with a French twist.

The weary-eyed French actress Miou-Miou, best-known to American audiences for her role in Diane Kurys' "Entre Nous," gives a touching performance as a fluttery woman who loves her husband but has forgotten the happy confusion of new attraction. Berling, as the husband (the sort of fellow who fondly shows a visitor his first-ever washing machine), plays the straight-laced Jean-Marie with a tight-lipped but very human anxiety. Merhar, making his acting debut here (he formerly worked in the very French profession of "wood gilder"), is mesmerizing, with an angelically lovely face that can harden in an instant.

Although "Dry Cleaning" is rather workmanlike visually (it's set in what must be one of the few charmless small French towns), the scenes at the dry cleaners have a compelling look to them. In this place where stains are scoured clean and mistakes erased, Fontaine creates an ominous atmosphere, with hissing steam, harsh fluorescent lights and crackling plastic bags. Late in the film, a sexual encounter takes place over an ironing board, with a hot iron nearby. Is it any wonder this coupling doesn't turn out well?

Despite the good work by the actors, the film feels a little off - it's got too many throwaway scenes, such as the grandmother singing a lengthy song, and the ending seems melodramatic and false. But at its best, "Dry Cleaning" is an effective portrait of a rather ordinary marriage facing temptation. In one scene, after Jean-Marie has angrily dragged Nicole away from Loic, they walk down a dark, quiet sidewalk - and, almost offhandedly, put their arms around each other. No real notice is taken of this; they just keep walking together. A nice detail, demonstrating the silent language spoken by those who know each other well.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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