Movie Review: Les femmes du 6ème étage (2010)
Is there no culture, no matter how free and sexy it seems to outsiders, who don’t see themselves as uptight and staid and in need of the wildness of another, generally more southern culture?
So as the British did with Italy in E.M. Forster’s novels and subsequent Merchant-Ivory films, and as Americans do in the Caribbean, getting their groove back, etc., so the French, in “The Women on the 6th Floor,” turn to Spain to shake off the shackles of their deadening, monetized, neutered civility. And they don’t even have to leave Paris to do it.
It’s 1962, and Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) live in relative luxury in an apartment in Paris. He’s a successful, genial stockbroker, she shops and complains. But right before the movie begins, his mother dies. Apparently she ran the household with the help of a longstanding, dour French maid, Germaine (Michèle Gleizer), who in effect raised their kids, now off at boarding school, and over whatever objections Suzanne had at the time. But: queen is dead, long live the queen. Suzanne and Germaine now clash, Germaine leaves in a huff (or on a bender after some Malaga wine from the Spanish maids on the 6th floor), and in the next shot there are dishes in the sink, the refrigerator is filthy and M. Joubert has no clean shirts. What to do? Mme. Joubert is at a loss. But her pick-a-little, talk-a-little friends suggest the latest thing: a Spanish maid. Apparently Mme. Joubert doesn’t know a whole passel of them live on the 6th floor of her building, so she goes to the local church and picks out Maria Gonzalez (Natalie Verbeke), who 1) lives on the 6th floor, 2) is newly arrived from Spain, and 3) is a looker. Because what wife doesn’t want a hot maid cooking for her husband?
There are trials. Maria must make M. Joubert’s egg just so, three and a half minutes, and does. She is given impossible tasks by the Suzanne ... and enlists the other maids to help complete them. They sing a Spanish version of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” while doing so. It looks like fun. Maiding.
The other maids are mostly stock, nondescript, and/or played by Almodovar alums. There’s Maria’s Auntie, Concepcion (Carmen Maura, who’s been in almost every Almodovar since “Folle ... Folle ... folleme Tim!” in 1978, and who picked up a Cesar for her performance here), stocky and jovial; Dolores (Berta Ojea) is also stocky and jovial. There’s Carmen (Lola Dueñas, “Broken Embraces,” “Volver,” “Talk to Her”), a tough, cynical communist, and Teresa (Nuria Solé), a tall drink of water who winds up married to a French salon keeper. Then our Maria of the beautiful eyes.
Initially, Jean-Louis is a bit stodgy, demanding that Maria call him “Sir,” etc., and Maria has secrets, including an 8-year-old son back in Spain, and the maids have various machinations and battles with the nasty concierge, Mme. Triboulet (Annie Mercier).
We get Jean-Louis’ background in a burst while helping Maria move some of Madame’s things to the 6th floor. Apparently his grandfather started the brokerage firm, his father maintained it, and now he runs it. Apparently he’s lived his whole life in this building. Not a surprise. He seems a dull man without much imagination. At this point, for example, he hasn’t imagined sleeping with Maria.
But on the 6th floor he’s introduced to the other maids, helps them with their stopped-up toilet, and basks in their gratitude. He lets Dolores use his phone (landline, kids) to find out about her sister’s child. In this manner he becomes immersed in the lives of the maids and becomes interested in all things Spanish. “You never worry about anybody, suddenly you care about Spanish maids?” his wife asks him. He does. Fairly innocently thus far.
Eventually, despite the above comment, his wife mistakes his absences for an affair with a client, the notorious, red-haired man-eater Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot), and she throws him out. After a pause on the steps, he returns to a room on the 6th floor and lives with the maids. He’s never had a room of his own. He luxuriates in it. It’s kind of cute, actually. The man who has much who’s never had this.
If the maids had all been dumpy, and his interest in them quirky, I might have been charmed by “Les femmes du 6ème étage.” But the maids are not all dumpy and his interest in them, at some point, is fired mostly by his interest in Maria, which he hides, poorly, behind an unsure smile and dumbfounded looks. They sleep together, of course. But they’re so nice about it. And that wife is so awful.
That’s the movie, basically: a rich, dumpy Frenchman leaves his wife to fuck his hot Spanish maid. But the movie stacks the decks so we like both of them, don’t like the wife, and get our happy ending in Spain, where Maria flees, despite another child, a daughter this time, but where Jean-Louis finds her hanging up the wash. He smiles at her, she smiles at him. The ending implies they wind up together. But what does she see in him besides money? What does he see in her besides hot? What happens when his money and her looks go? What will they have? Nice? How long before she throws that three-and-a-half minute egg in his face?