Published February 1, 1999
Nettoyage à Sec (Dry Cleaning) by Anne Fontaine presents us with a French version of that now familiar Hollywood trope, merely gestured towards in 8mm, the capacity for sexual adventurism and even perversion in all of us. Nicole (Miou-Miou) and Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) have been married for 15 years and run a dry-cleaning establishment in Belfort, in provincial France. One night they go to a club, La Nuit des Temps, where they see Loïc (Stanislas Merhar) and Marilyn (Mathilde Seigner), both of them cross-dressing and having simulated sex as “the queens of the night.” Next day, Loïc brings his lamé gown in to be cleaned and proves friendly in spite of expectations. Jean-Marie says to Nicole: “Don’t tell me a drag artist is like you and me,” but of course the whole idea of the film is that he is. And so is everybody else. Sexual secrets are ubiquitous. When Nicole and Jean-Marie go back to the club, drawn almost against their will, they notice: “Look, it’s the man from the bank.”
On this occasion, they drink too much and find themselves going home with the performers, who seem accustomed to swapping partners. Jean-Marie stops the exchange before they have gone all the way, and then finds himself presented by Loïc with a bill for 800 francs. After paying their bar bill, Jean Marie only has 200 left. “Will you take a check?” he asks. “Of course,” says Loïc. You’d think it might have been a lesson to them, especially as their business is struggling a bit and they haven’t got a lot of cash to throw around. Also, they have a young son and Jean-Marie’s mother lives with them. But somehow what they have come close to, even if paid for—perhaps especially if paid for—has excited them, and they follow the young performers to their next gig, in Basle.
There Loïc does not even remember them. “Did we meet in Belfort? Memory’s not my thing,” he says. It is a theme that is repeated. He and Marilyn are foster-brother and sister (it is not clear if they are also biologically related or not) and have had a miserable childhood in which they had no one but themselves to depend on. As a result they live, hippie-like in an eternal present. But soon Marilyn runs off with a new boyfriend and Loïc, improbably seeming to know no one else in the world, turns up on the doorstep of the dry-cleaners where he is taken in and taught the dry-cleaning business. Soon he is happily servicing Nicole, not entirely without Jean-Marie’s knowledge or approval. “I like Nicole the way she is,” he tells his mother who tries to make him aware of the impropriety. “Different.”
But as far as Loïc is concerned, it is Jean-Marie who is the real sexual prize, and about this the latter’s feelings are more ambiguous and doubtful. He repeatedly spurns Loïc’s advances, but with less and less conviction. At the same time, however, Loïc is experiencing for the first time what is for him a seemingly normal domestic life. “I feel good with you two,” he tells Nicole. “It’s like having a family.” He even finds that, for the first time in his life, he has memories. Their new family even begins to seem permanent when, frightened at what is happening Jean-Marie tries to end it and finds that Nicole absolutely refuses to go back to the way they were. From being blissfully unaware that she was even unhappy, Nicole has gone to embittered desperation. “The one time something happens in our lives,” she says to Jean-Marie, and you have to ruin it.”
Up to this point the situation is set up to be interesting and emotionally engaging, given that its starting point is so unpromising. Nor has Mlle. Fontaine taken the easy route, which Hollywood films on this theme almost always take, of pretending that the relaxation of bourgeois sexual restraints is a panacea for all psychic ills rather than a problem much bigger than any it is proposed as a solution to. But having got herself into very deep psychological and emotional waters, she doesn’t quite know how to how to get out of them again and so tacks on an ending reminiscent of Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle that I find, if not necessarily unconvincing in itself, a cop-out given the seriousness of the subject she has addressed. Having got to the point of seeing the argument for traditional sexual morality, she seems to draw back in horror and race off in another direction entirely. What is she so afraid of?