Friday, December 16, 2011

New Release Review: The Women on the 6th Floor (Phillipe Le Guay, 2011)

The Women on the 6th Floor, a French romantic comedy from director Phillipe Le Guay, is sure to be a crowd-pleaser and will likely have a successful cinematic run based purely through word of mouth. The film isn’t groundbreaking, profound or unpredictable, and evolves in a conventional way; but it’s light-hearted, pleasant and amusing. It made me smile. It was a big hit at the French Film Festival earlier in the year and was an official selection at 2011 Berlinale.

Though it ties in some profound themes – the class division in French society (bourgeois vs. the working class) and the impact of the Spanish Civil War on working-class families – it never delves into them (nor does it really desire to), with the issues providing a context more than affecting the chain of events.

Comparisons to The Help are few and far between – with the women facing tougher conditions in Franco-ruled Spain than in their professions. Choosing to escape the tyranny, they earn money for their families, and keep the houses of the snobby bourgeois French. Though they are forced to relocate, and face the pomposity of their ungrateful employers, they never lose their sense of life and their spirit.

Set in Paris, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini, Potiche) lives a wealthy and privileged bourgeois life absorbed in his work as a stockbroker and investor, living peacefully but lifelessly with his neurotic and dull socialite wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), while their children are away at a boarding school.

The couple’s world is turned upside down when they hire an attractive Spanish maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke). Their previous maid, a Frenchwoman, was a member of the household for 25 years but having become fed up with her employer’s ingratitude, decides to leave. Through Maria, who is the niece of one of the servants who reside on the building’s sixth floor, Jean-Louis is introduced to a vibrant alternative reality – one that unexpectedly alters his perspective on the women that take care of his affairs and on life in general.

He has a number of encounters with the sassy Spanish maids; learning of their meager privileges and confined existence, fixing their blocked toilet, offering his phone to one so she can call her family, and joining them for Sunday Mass. In response to his acts of kindness, they invite him to a dinner party and he willingly accompanies them to the country for a picnic.

Eventually, his wife becomes suspicious of his behavior and kicks him out, though she is oblivious to his attraction to Maria. Rather than finding a new place, he moves a couple of floors up and lives in a confined room (one that equates to his greatest freedom) amongst his new friends. He learns there is more to life than stocks and bonds and he experiences an existential awakening, desiring a life with the gorgeous Maria, the only woman able to perfect his eggs.

The contrast between the lifeless apartment level of the residents (the ‘bosses’) and the energetic existence of the servants on the sixth floor comes across as a little extreme at times. Even the way the different parts of the building are lit – Jean-Louis and Suzanne’s apartment is drab and colourless, while the rooms and hallway upstairs have this warm glow.

There is also some great work from the cast. Luchini is a likeable lead. He has a great look of bemusement and uses his face to great effect. Though his wife and spoilt sons were simple caricatures, he added another dimension to his character. The actresses playing the Spanish maids were all well cast and unique. Together, they seemed to have a lot of fun, and their camaraderie was believable and well written. The Women on the 6th Floor is a sweet and entertaining way to fill in some time. There isn’t much below the surface, but when it is this sugary and with humour this gentle, and leaves you feeling uplifted, it matters little.

My Rating: ★★★1/2 (B-)

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