The Hairdresser’s Husband (Le mari de la coiffeuse)
France (1990) Dir. Patrice Leconte
We all have our own little passions or obsessions – some are fairly universal like music, films, food, etc. while others are little more esoteric or downright weird in the eyes of others. I think it is fair to say that the obsession of the male protagonist of this film is a tad unusual although the genesis of it is fairly commonplace.
Unlike other boys of his age, 12 year-old Antoine (Henry Hocking) has developed an unhealthy fixation with his hairdresser, the buxom spinster Madame Schaeffer (Anne-Marie Pisani). Making any excuse for regular visits, Antoine treasures his time with Madame Schaeffer until she commits suicide. Fast forward to adulthood and Antoine (Jean Rochefort) is still harbouring an interest in female hairdressers.
One day Antoine is drawn to the shop run by Mathilde (Anna Galiena), falling in love instantly with her. He swiftly asks for a haircut and when she is finished, Antoine suddenly and shockingly proposes to Mathilde, quickly apologising before leaving. Three weeks later Antoine returns to the shop where Mathilde accepts his proposal, beginning a romantic and mutually fulfilling relationship that takes place solely in the shop.
It is not rude to suggest that Patrice Leconte views the world through a unique lense as his films have demonstrated, whilst his sense of humour is arcane at best. Perhaps not Dali level surreal, maybe more Tati but without the grounded point of reference. In this instance, the quirkiness is subdued, holding back on the flights of fancy but keeping things firmly within the central narrative.
The first thing we notice about this film is the title itself. It is not often you see this but for once, the male is presented in the possessive case and not the female – titles such as My Wife Is An Actress, His Girl Friday, The Butcher’s Wife, etc. exemplify what The Hairdresser’s Husband is subverting, pushing the female role as the more important. It is not that Antoine is particularly submissive or is turned on by hair cutting but for him, female hairdressers are his ideal women.
Something not addressed in the film but is wholly evident from the actors’ appearances is the age difference – Rochefort was a sprightly 60 at the time of filming while his Italian co-star was a comparatively mere 36. This isn’t a critique or a sign of disapproval towards age gaps and the duo do make for an enigmatic and blissful happy couple, but it is occasionally a little hard to watch Rochefort fondling and caressing Galiena without experiencing a slight tinge of creepiness.
Putting that aside, Leconte is sharing with us a tale about dreams actually coming true and the aftermath of this achievement. Most stories are about the journey – this one bucks the trend by skipping to the chase, the moment of crowning glory then showing the changes it brings. Marrying a hairdresser may not seem like high aspiration – young Antoine received a slap from his shocked father (Roland Bertin) upon his announcement – but a goal is a goal.
Leconte is also showing us that we can find love, happiness or sanctuary in the most unexpected and ordinary of places, while using Antoine’s situation as a coming-of-age allegory for puberty. Through Madame Schaeffer’s warm personality, gentle touch and, during one summer, a glimpse of her ample unfettered bosom through her uniform, Antoine falls hopelessly in love, having found this early epitome of womanhood.
Mathilde is a lot younger, slimmer and quieter than Madame Schaeffer thus making her more enigmatic and alluring to Antoine. A brief expository concerning her professional history aside, Mathilde is a mystery who grows more mysterious as this 78-minute film progresses. Quite why she should accept a marriage proposal from an older man after a few minutes in his company is never explained but we do see that her love is genuine.
Antoine is of course in his element but doesn’t take a thing for granted, doing as much to make Mathilde happy as she does him. She doesn’t like travel so they stay in the shop – in fact, they get married in the shop, the celebrations interrupted when a customer arrives! Men come and go under Antoine’s watchful eye but not an iota of jealously is hinted at, while his extrovert dancing skills help calm an uncooperative child customer.
The period setting isn’t made clear but décor and fashion strongly suggest late 70’s early 80’s with the current timeline finding the marriage in its tenth year. What isn’t openly discussed is the future they have together but Mathilde does have a particular fear that their love is only temporary and becomes paranoid that Antoine will stop wanting her. Noticing her regular customers are getting older, Mathilde realises she is too.
It’s a dark and provocative point to arrive at so late in the film, especially since the basic premise is about attaining goals but Leconte is keen to remind us that the lustre has to come off sooner or later and that nothing lasts forever. Having already bucked many trends so far in this film Leconte goes for broke in the bittersweet final act that suddenly turns the concept of “dreams” on this head with a poetic twist of ambiguity.
Regardless of the age gap, the two leads are marvellous together (uneasy sex scenes aside), selling the idea of this inexplicable couple on a journey of pure love as convincing and, most importantly of all, attainable. The support cast provide quirky distractions to mark the significant points in the central relationship whilst Henry Hocking is great as the young Antoine.
While a hit and miss director for this writer, Leconte has delivers a charming, passionate and thoughtful parable in The Hairdresser’s Husband. It may be a little too abstruse for some, but remains accessible enough to appeal outside of the arthouse community despite its predilection for the unconventional.