Film review: The Women on the 6th Floor

by **

Dear Dad

It is 1962 in Paris. Long-time housekeeper of the Joubert’s household, Germaine (Michele Gleizer), leaves her employment of 18 years in tears and fury. She is disgusted by Suzanne’s (Sandrine Kiberlain) disrespect for her late mother-in-law, callously throwing out her belongings only six months after her death, and riled by what she sees as ingratitude of Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini), the deceased woman’s son, who appears to be siding with his wife.

If the opening scenes of Philippe Le Guay’s latest film seem to highlight the cold, stuffy insouciance of the 20th century French bourgeois, the ensuing drama that unfolds is anything but. The Women on the 6th Floor, which at first comes across as little more than a feel-good fairy-tale romance, subverts the usual perception of middle-class heartlessness and wryly suggests human fallibility’s lack of respect for culture or class.

Just as Director and Co-writer Le Guay is keen to open with patrician aloofness, he is earnest in portraying provincial camaraderie. When Maria (Natalia Verbeke), a young Spanish maid, finds herself daunted by a bucket list of household tasks from Suzanne, the newcomer in the French city enlists the help of her aunt and a bevy of compatriots, themselves housekeepers, all living in the servants’ quarters on the sixth floor. With élan and good cheer, singing to the catchy tune of Dalida’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’, the Jouberts’ shambolic residence is quickly transformed with a delightful flourish.

But after Maria deftly impresses the fastidious Jean-Louis with the perfect 3 1/2 minutes boiled egg, the characters begin to take on a certain shading. Jean-Louis organises for the 6th floor’s broken toilet to be fixed and offers an anxious Dolores (Berta Ojea), a housekeeper living on that floor, the use of his phone to make an international call on her sister’s child delivery. When Pilar (Concha Galan), another Spanish maid, is physically abused by her husband, the influential stockbroker finds her a place of refuge and orders his office to manage the women’s meagre savings.

It would have been easy to portray Suzanne as a chilly, hedonistic wife purely interested in keeping up appearances to the exclusion of her husband’s needs. But, intriguingly, the writers have chosen for her to be a woman, who of humble origins, suffers a deep sense of inadequacy in socialite company. Her character is in striking contrast to Maria’s “fearless” dignity despite less privileged circumstances and a chequered past.

Indeed, the shy attraction that develops between Jean-Louis and Maria would have inspired less ambivalence, were Suzanne delineated as less vulnerable and more frigid. Her happy acquiescence of her husband’s sexual desires — triggered ironically by a stolen glimpse of Maria’s naked body — earns for her one’s sympathy.

Le Guay’s remarkable eye for the nuances of human behaviour is clearly manifested in his depiction of Jean-Louis’ jealousy cloaked in anger towards Maria when a sleazy butler sidles up to her. Despite empathy with their angst in a trivial tiff that we see between young lovers, one does not feel altogether behind their budding relationship — even less so when Suzanne, contrite after misplaced suspicions led her to send her husband away, unsuspectingly confides in Maria.

In the same way that the story injects exquisite doses of humour in the most unexpected places, it makes subtle political statements about Spain under Franco’s rule. Through Carmen (Lola Duenas) — a cynical maid whose death of her Spanish family has imbued in her Communist ideologies — on whom Jean-Louis relies for telling the truth, for example, controversial assertions are quietly weaved throughout the narrative.

Le Guay directs a stellar cast. Luchini is convincing as the kindly employer who finds liberation in a seedy room on the 6th floor after enduring a life constrained by obligations and responsibilities. Verbeke is inarguably stunning and utterly amenable to the camera that captures Maria’s poise and radiance — even and especially amidst wet washing — overshadowing her ultimate betrayal of Suzanne’s trust.

Equally tremendous are the other raucous women on the 6th floor, including Ojea, Galan, Duenas, the beautiful Nura Sole whose Teresa aspires for the middle-class lifestyle and dour Gleizer. Not forgetting, of course, the marvellous Carmen Maura. As Concepcion, Maria’s perceptive aunt, she warns her niece against falling for Luchini, only to find her own husband she has been supporting with her hard-earned wages having an illicit affair back in Spain.

Still, the laurels go to Kiberlain. Her seamless transfigurations from the begrudging daughter-in-law and pampered mistress of the house, the insecure socialite, disgruntled mother happily abandoned by her husband, to the remorseful wife desperate for the return of his affections are emotionally breathtaking.

There is not one nasty scene in the entire film — not even when Jean-Louis’ pre-teen sons confront him with disgust in his decrepit single room. And for those who relish a neat ending, The Women on the 6th Floor will not disappoint.

This is a charming comedy that will warm many hearts. While following your heart may not always be the most moral, Le Guay tells us this is a phenomenon that crosses boundaries of all varieties.