Dir: Manuel Poirier. France 2007. 96 mins.
French director Manuel Poirier delivers his most convincing feature since the bittersweet 1997 road-movie Western with La Maison, an emotionally delicate romantic comedy that once again features Poirier regular Sergi Lopez in the lead role. A rural house that's up for sale becomes a go-between in a romantic tryst, but also turns into a metaphor for the way the past can act as a ball and chain. It's not a particularly original idea, but despite some flat passages La Maison is perceptive and human enough to overcome, and justify, its leisurely progress and unemphatic tone.

This said, the commercial fragility of the sort of meandering, humour-tinged Rohmer-esque dramas that Poirier specialises in was demonstrated when the film disappeared from the top twenty the week after its French release in a crowded end of August slot. La Maison may paradoxically find a more sympathetic home overseas, if opened on a limited basis to carefully targeted arthouse audiences with a taste for stylish Gallic fare. And after Pan's Labyrinth, Lopez is becoming more of a known quantity outside of France and Spain.

Lopez plays Malo, a mid-life, middle-class melancholic who is going through a divorce and seems to have reached a dead end both in his job (he owns a printing studio) and his emotional life. While returning to Paris from the country, Malo and his friend Remi (Bruno Salomone) stumble on a house just outside a small village that is about to be sold by auction.

While exploring the place, Malo pockets a child's letter - moved, we guess, by thoughts of his own children, who are at the seaside with their mother.

This letter is the catalyst for Malo's meeting with Laura (Barbara Schulz) and Chloe (Berenice Bejo), the two sisters who grew up in the house, but are now forced to sell it after the death of their father. There are distant echoes of a Feydeau farce at times: the way Laura goes along for an appointment with Malo pretending to be Chloe, the anticipation of a menage a trois before Malo and Chloe get it on.

The really impressive, seductive thing about La Maison is the way that this comic substrata co-exists with drama - for example, in an auction scene that goes on forever, but which never drags thanks to the deft management of the dramatic beats: or the delicate tracing of the mixture of tenderness and shy insecurity that governs Malo's relationship with his kids, especially his daughter.

Production design is spot-on: Malo's life in limbo is mirrored in his apartment, full of unpacked boxes, the walls bare except for one of his kids' drawings.

And the country house of the title is not a cliched Provencal farmhouse straight out of A Good Year: it's a low-lying, faintly gloomy place that has obviously been added on to, without much finesse, at some point in its history.

Still framings, slow pans and carefully cadenced editing establish an unhurried rhythm. One of the best shots shows Laura and her sister bickering all the way down a provincial French street, captured in full sunlight with a long, long lens. Natural light dominates, giving this summer's tale an airy quality which anticipates the sense of emotional reawakening at the end of the film.

Written and directed by
Manuel Poirier

Production company
Diaphana Film (Fr)

France 3 Cinema (Fr)

International sales
Films Distribution (Fr)
(33) 1 53 10 33 99

Michel Saint-Jean

Pierre Milon

Production design
Herve Duhamel

Simon Jacquet

Lhasa & Jean Massicotte

Main cast
Sergi Lopez
Bruno Salomone
Berenice Bejo
Barbara Schulz