Le Guay and his ‘Women’

‘The Women on the 6th Floor’ opens a door into a little-known world of Paris in the 1960s.

The Women on the Sixth Floor  (photo credit: Courtesy of sbpr)
The Women on the Sixth Floor
(photo credit: Courtesy of sbpr)
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 throughout Israel.
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.
“It came 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.
“They 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 priests.”
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. But we 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 conflict.”
He decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Lawrence of Arabia 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.”
The new film sounds like the kind of gentle comedy that audiences who enjoyed The Women on the Sixth Floor can look forward to.