A Delicate Man and Wife Air Their Dirty Fantasies

Anne Fontaine’s Dry Cleaning , from a screenplay by Gilles Taurand and Ms. Fontaine, based on an original idea by Ms. Fontaine and Claude Arnaud, strains to make the mechanized delicacy of dry cleaning a metaphor for the confusedly kinky sexual awakening of a hitherto repressed provincial French couple whose whole life seems to be poured into their clothes laundering business. The film thus alternates in its tone between that of a dry-as-dust industrial documentary and a hazy, dreamlike descent into soft-core salaciousness.

Nicole (Miou-Miou) and Jean-Marie (Charles Berling) have been toiling tirelessly for 15 years when their well-ordered lives are suddenly disrupted one night in a local nightclub where a provocatively sensual brother-sister act of cross-dressing innuendo is performing. The next morning, Loïc (Stanislas Merhar), the male transvestite of the duo, brings his dress in to be cleaned. Nicole and Jean-Marie are both taken with the attractive young man, and the stage is set for a perverse rendezvous between the two couples, with Loïc making the moves on Nicole, and Loïc’s sister Marylin (Mathilde Seigner) attempting to seduce Jean-Marie, without success. It soon becomes apparent that the quadrille is being reduced to a triangle, with Loïc setting his sights on both Nicole and Jean-Marie. There are echoes here of Teorema (1968), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), with Loïc as the pansexual savior played in the Pasolini by Terence Stamp.

Loïc’s sister Marylin is quickly removed from the mix by a clumsily devised runaway with an unsavory lover, but not before she and Loïc have delivered a devastating drag performance as French pop music icons Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Hallyday. Loïc comes to work for Jean-Marie and Nicole, quickly masters the craft of dry cleaning, and even more quickly beds Nicole. Jean-Marie eventually discovers the affair, but says nothing about it. Meanwhile, Loïc clearly states his intention to Jean-Marie to add him to his conquests. Jean-Marie rejects Loïc’s advances, but never tells Nicole about them. As narrative goes, Dry Cleaning is at the opposite pole from the typical Henry James novel, in which characters know that other characters know that they know almost ad infinitum.

The ultimate effect of the noncommunication between Nicole and Jean-Marie is to heighten the suspense in the relatively new genre of films in which a gay or bisexual attempted seduction of an avowedly straight character takes place, as in last year’s Gods and Monsters, Love and Death on Long Island, High Art, Love Is the Devil and, in a sense, even Wilde . The fantasy here is a less banal variant of the traditional male sexist fantasy that every woman yearns to be raped or at least seduced by a man. Jean-Marie in Dry Cleaning seems to be the supposed latent homosexual hidden in every heterosexual’s closet. The outcome here is disastrous for all concerned, but one is left with the feeling that too much has been left unsaid. This may be true enough in so-called real life, but is somewhat inadequate for dramatic narrative. I am not proposing that every motivation be spelled out in endless psychobabble, though, as it is, there is too much talk of Loïc’s bruised-orphan past as an explanation for his obsession with Nicole and Jean-Marie as his “family.”

What frustrates me is that Miou-Miou, Mr. Berling and newcomer Mr. Merhar project such compelling characters on the screen that I want their inner lives more clearly articulated. From her previous work, Ms. Fontaine emerges as perhaps too much of a theoretical absurdist to engage in full-bodied, full-blooded dramatic conflict. After all, the perils of the boulevard are no less fearsome than the perils of the ivory tower.

At Least Cinderella Got Top Billing

Robert Iscove’s She’s All That , from a screenplay by R. Lee Fleming Jr., is so preposterously puerile in its plot outline that one is tempted to search for hidden ironies and campy insights in a scenario that had whiskers when Henry Aldrich and Andy Hardy were in their cradles. When high school hero Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) asks school nerd, geek and ugly duckling Laney Boggs if she ever thought of replacing her ugly eyeglasses with contact lenses, I could hear Dorothy Parker chortling in her grave. It seems that Zack has been dissed by his main squeeze and reigning prom queen Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) and has rashly made a bet with his best friend and rival Dean Sampson (Paul Walker) that he can transform any girl of Dean’s choosing on campus into a prom queen.

Dean chooses the reclusive Laney, and the Pygmalion-Galatea shenanigans begin. And why is Zack such a big man on campus that the other students, male and female, swoon when he calls them by name, even if it’s the wrong name? Get this. Zack is class president, honor student and captain of the soccer team. Soccer! How New Age can you get? Henry Aldrich and Andy Hardy probably never heard of soccer. As for the bet subplot, it goes back to old Vienna and beyond. And the inevitable misunderstanding scene goes back to Adam and Eve. She’s All That is so laughably upscale southern Californian in its style that it makes You’ve Got Mail look like The Grapes of Wrath .

Not that Zack doesn’t have at least one problem. Though he has been admitted to Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and N.Y.U., indeed almost everywhere prestigious except Columbia-we must have higher standards-he hasn’t responded to any of the acceptances. Why? His dad went to Dartmouth and wants Zack to follow in his footsteps and cleat marks. Not to worry: Laney shames him into making his own decisions at the tender age of 18.

As I was straining to watch this very glossy movie with a straight face, I was struck by both an ancient memory and a new idea. When I was enduring my geekdom in high school in the 40′s, I wondered where these incredibly good-looking and sophisticated boys with Ph.D.’s on the subject of girls came from at a time when I was still toddling in the kindergarten. Now I know. They were really 23-year-old actors (like the currently “hot” Mr. Prinze) just pretending to be 18-year-old students.

As for my new idea, it is simply this. She’s All That , with its exaggerated archetypes, might play better as an animated cartoon. The director, Mr. Iscove, is almost halfway there, with such previous television credits as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet on Ice , though, technically, live-action attractions are basically juvenile enterprises with a hoped-for crossover adult appeal beyond the inevitable parent-child tandem.

In its present form, however, She’s All That wastes some far from minuscule talents on material that is made even more offensive by its injections of political correctness. Its real models are Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), though lacking both Alicia Silverstone and Jane Austen, and John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986), though without Molly Ringwald. As much as I admired Clueless when it came out, I still gagged a little bit over its casual acceptance of racial harmony and joyous colorblindness among our younger people. I am not sure that this media euphoria extends to the society at large, though I have no idea what else can be done under the circumstances. It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as Woody Allen has learned to his dismay with his somewhat belated, if derogatory, tokenism with an African-American hooker in Deconstructing Harry .

More bothersome in She’s All That are the mixed messages about the choices between membership in the avant-garde and in the mainstream of peer approval. The movie comes up with a few twists amid the overall caricatures, with Zack intuitively improvising a piece of performance art, and Laney gracefully emerging from her cocoon to float flirtatiously in the world at large. Even so, her violent off-screen defense of her virtue seems to have come out of a feminist tract on having your cupcake and saving it, too. It is too easy making the sexual predator both a laughable fool and a boastful swine. At times, the movie slides into the fantastic musical mode of George Sidney’s Bye, Bye, Birdie , though without Ann-Margret. My point seems to be that any Cinderella story must be told from the point of view not of the handsome prince, but of Cinderella herself. For that matter, Mr. Prinze seems capable of better roles than Mr. Prom King.

An Awards Show You Can Watch

The Golden Globes proved more entertaining than the Oscar omens they were supposed to provide. By splitting their categories, the Globes were able to honor both Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love , still the co-favorites for the best picture Oscar. Among the winners, Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson were clearly the funniest and least inhibited by the television cameras. Jim Carrey was more subdued than usual, possibly because he was genuinely surprised that he beat out Nick Nolte, the steady winner among all the critics groups. For the first time ever, I found that television was more than holding its own with my own area of expertise, the sacred cinema.