In “My Worst Nightmare,” Isabelle Huppert plays an icy museum director who falls in love with the Belgian sleazebag — played by Benoit Poelvoorde — who’s done repair work on her palatial Paris apartment. A movie like this needs almost no further explanation since, as romantic comedies go, this is old-testament ancient. But the movie has more writing than you’d get in an American version of similar material (see “Playing for Keeps,” Page 12, which opens today; or don’t). It has too much writing, in fact.
Their teenage-ish sons have become inseparable, and child services is threatening to take the sleaze’s boy, who, by all accounts, is brilliant, while the ice queen’s son is an underachieving punk. He needs to find the boy a suitable home to win over the authorities, and there could be no more suitable home in the city than the one he’s just fixed up. Meanwhile, her vaguely older live-in partner (André Dus-sollier) finds himself on the sort of humiliating dates with a younger woman (Virginie Efira) that you might expect of a middle-age Frenchman of Dussollier’s calibre.
But the excess gives Huppert and Poelvoorde room to enjoy themselves and each other. To be fair to this movie, which Anne Fontaine directed from a script she wrote with Nicolas Mercier, I watched it fearing tremors of “The Intouchables,” that painful international megahit from the spring about the rich, disabled Frenchman who hires an African ex-con to push his wheelchair. Fontaine’s movie expects us to find Poelvoorde as charming as we were meant to find the ex-con, whom Omar Sy played. But Poelvoorde is giving a performance. The ex-con was giving comfort.
Both movies are about the mutual benefits of cohabitation among the classes. “My Worst Nightmare” isn’t great, but it isn’t apologizing for anything, either. Plus, I laughed out loud at least three times. The loudest was as Poelvoorde arrives at the apartment for the first time and, amid all the one-of-a-kind furniture and zillion-dollar fixtures and accouterments, starts hunting for someplace to charge his cellphone. He conducts his search in the brazen manner in which he does everything else.
Huppert’s character, who’s a tornado of demands at work, is almost as obnoxious as Poel-voorde’s. She just not as willfully disgusting. He chews up all the scenery with his thick Belgian accent and splaying limbs and general cartoonishness.
At some point, Huppert looks on, mildly aghast, as he perfectly attacks the lyrics of “Hunter/Collector,” a pumping, hilariously oversexed song by Magnus. The scene is over as soon as it begins, and you worry that any director who can cut away from that might not know what she’s doing. But Fontaine carries on in the spirit of genial romance and plays an aggravating trick. Cutting away from Poelvoorde in that moment just makes you want him a little more.