Maids have come out from behind the shadows of their employers and taken a
central place on the big screen lately, notably in the US film, The Help, and
Philippe Le Guay’s The Women on the Sixth Floor, which has just opened
It tells the story of a bourgeois Parisian household
in the early Sixties, and particularly of the man of the house, whose life is
changed irrevocably (and for the better) when he gets to know the Spanish maids
who work in the apartment building and live on the sixth floor.
out of my childhood memories, from when I was a little boy,” says Le Guay, in a
phone interview from his Paris home. “I had a Spanish nanny for a few years. She
left in the early Sixties to go back to Spain to get married. I have visions of
her talking in the streets to other Spanish women. So I had this memory, and
then I talked to my co-writer, Jerome Tonnerre, and he himself had a Spanish
nanny, or maid, at home. These were very faint memories and we decided to
explore [the] historical background.”
They discovered that in the decade
when they were children, 100,000 Spanish women came to work as domestics in
France, fleeing poverty and sometimes oppression in Franco’s Spain.
usually didn’t plan to settle in France, but they were paid three or four times
better here than in Spain. Under the Franco dictatorship, the economy of Spain
was really a disaster, especially in the countryside, so they came here to work
in the big cities, Paris, Lyons and Marseilles. There was a great
economic gap between France and Spain then, so for some of these women it was
like a jump to another century.”
But he was surprised to discover that
some of the women stayed in France for 50 years.
“I remember them
speaking a mixture of Spanish and French, and they still speak same
mixture. There is a Spanish church where they go, with Spanish
A scene in the film where the Frenchman joins his new Spanish
friends in prayer was shot in the same church.
But the story Le Guay
wrote underwent some changes as he worked on it.
“The first draft of the
script was about an adolescent. We developed a story about a boy who was
neglected by his parents. Then he discovered the sixth floor and the Spanish
maids. It was much more a Truffaut film, like The 400 Blows.
decided to change the point of view of the story, that the father should be the
hero. The father was remote and absent in his own life at the beginning. That
was really the heart of the film for me.”
While there is a love story at
the heart of the film, it is not a typical romance.
“He doesn’t just fall
in love with one maid. He falls in love with all the women. He is drawn to them
as a group. They were so different from the women he had always known, although
they are all very different. Some are very Catholic, some are radical
politically and are atheists. There is contrast within the group. He does fall
in love with Maria, but he is not aware of it. He has this affection but he
doesn’t understand it.”
While the director clearly feels a great deal of
sympathy for the maids, he has empathy for all his characters. Speaking of
Suzanne, the mistress of the house, he says, “She is struggling in her life. She
feels she wasn’t good enough for her husband because she is not from Paris
originally...I like all my characters. I need to like the characters I
put on the screen.”
The film, which has played all over the world,
including Europe, the US and Australia, “appeals to all different countries.
It’s a story about immigration, and that’s a reality all over the world. I
thought I was dealing with a very particular story about French society in the
Sixties. I put a life on screen based on memories from my own family. My father
was a stockbroker, as the father is in the film. But although the story was very
particular, audiences can connect to it everywhere.”
He admits his own
family was “a bit anxious” about his decision not to become a
stockbroker. “There were three generations of stockbrokers in the
family. But after a while, they accepted me working in movies, and there was no
He decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Lawrence of
with his parents at the age of seven. By the age of 12, he was taking
notes for screenplays.
He is currently at work on a screenplay for
another film that will star Fabrice Luchini, the actor who plays the hero of The
Women on the Sixth Floor.
“It’s about an actor who doesn’t want to act
anymore. We are going to shoot it outside the city, on a little island. This is
our second film together, and I don’t feel we are very different in our attitude
toward life. We talk about literature, we talk about everything.”
film sounds like the kind of gentle comedy that audiences who enjoyed The Women
on the Sixth Floor
can look forward to.