Crude and misleading, the title barely hints at the joys of this effervescent, beautifully acted French romance. I must admit, however, that a one-sentence plot summary of the film is equally crude and misleading: Wealthy executive dumps his wife and family for an overweight black cleaning lady with five kids and five ex-husbands.
Trust the French to make the combination seem as natural as a croissant and beurre. The film’s writer-director, Coline Serreau, is best known for Three Men and a Cradle, which was blunted and Americanized into the box-office smash Three Men and a Baby. The same fate is about to befall Mama, reportedly as a vehicle for Richard Dreyfuss. They never learn, even after the delightful Cousin, Cousine became the dreary Cousins and the sparkling Les Fugitifs went flat as Three Fugitives.
But why look ahead to potential disaster when the movie at hand has things under control? Daniel Auteuil stars as Romuald, an imperious boss being framed for creative bookkeeping by envious colleagues out to take over his company. The debonair Auteuil will astonish those who know him only as Yves Montand’s pathetic nephew in Jean de Florette. And he is shrewdly matched with newcomer Firmine Richard as the cleaning lady, Juliette. Raised in the Antilles and having no formal acting experience, Richard proves wonderfully expressive and appealing.
For years Juliette has tidied Romuald’s office without getting more than a perfunctory bonjour. Now she is all he has. Without telling his family, Romuald dodges the police by hiding out in Juliette’s cramped flat, where her kids pile up with her in bed. Romuald must work to clear his name. With Juliette’s help, he collects evidence to prove the conspiracy against him. But the process takes time. And in that time, Romuald sees the nurturing woman of his dreams in Juliette and falls in love. A fairy tale? Without a doubt. But under Serreau’s magic wand – it shoos away the harsher realities – Auteuil and Richard make an improbable attraction an irresistibly witty proposition.