Dry Cleaning (Nettoyage à Sec)

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:
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

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.
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

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.

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

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
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?

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