The upstairs maids

‘The Women on the Sixth Floor’is worth taking the stairs for.

The women on the sixth floor 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The women on the sixth floor 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The Women on the Sixth Floor’ Directed by Philippe Le Guay.Written by Le Guay and Jerome Tonnerre.Hebrew title: Hanashim b’Koma Hashishit.Running time: 104 minutes.In French and Spanish.Check with theaters for subtitle information.
A word I don’t often have the occasion to use when reviewing movies is “charm,” since it is a quality rarely found on the big screen today. But it comes to mind when I think of the film The Women on the Sixth Floor, directed by Philippe Le Guay. Seeing this gentle, amiable film is a bit like spending a couple of hours at a dinner party with many charming guests. You will leave refreshed, in a good mood and with a craving for paella.
The film, which is set in Paris in the early 1960s, tells the story of the inhabitants of a single building. There is the Joubert family, an haute-bourgeois clan who lives in the lavish residence on the bottom floors. The father, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini), is a stockbroker, and his wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), is a skinny blonde with endearing freckles whose life revolves around finding, buying and enjoying the best of everything. Their sons are away at boarding school, one of the best schools most likely.
But all is not well. M. Joubert’s mother has died recently, and this opens up a power struggle between Suzanne and the family’s longtime maid from northern France. She quits in a huff, and now Suzanne must quickly find a replacement or face her husband’s anger if his egg has not been properly boiled. But help comes from the sixth floor, where the Spanish maids who work in the building live.
Concepcion (Carmen Maura from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) suggests her niece Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who has recently arrived from Spain. Jean-Louis is drawn to the young servant in a childlike way that doesn’t seem sleazy or lecherous, and she introduces him to the world of the sixth floor. He is shocked to see their filthy bathrooms and soon becomes part of the maids’ world, getting to know and appreciate all these women as he begins to help them fight their battles.
That’s the entire focus of the film, and in many ways it is an idealized picture. But the wonderful acting is what is truly captivating here. Fabrice Luchini makes what could be a dull, clichéd character – the square and self-centered boss – into something more. He brings out the boy who has never really had a chance to play from behind the façade of a very dull man. The ensemble cast members are all good, but the standout among the maids is Natalia Verbeke. This Argentine actress makes a character that is perhaps a little too beautiful and too good to be true seem believable, at least during the movie’s running time. You root for her, and all the maids.
Naturally, there are stock characters. One woman is an outspoken opponent of the Franco regime and an atheist, while another is a fervent Catholic. A gorgeous, model type among the maids dates Frenchmen and hopes to marry one. Concepcion dreams of returning to Spain to build her own home, while another maid is abused by her husband.
As formulaic as the film is at times, at least it doesn’t make the character of Suzanne, Jean-Louis’s wife, into a shrew. She is an insecure woman who feels threatened by his interest in the maids, as well as by an attractive client.
While the film is predictable, it has the flavor of one of Francois Truffaut’s later comedy-dramas. While many prefer Truffaut’s earlier more serious films, there is no denying that even his lightest comedies are peopled by characters that are full of charm and life. It’s hard not to think of such films as Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, for example, when you watch The Women on the Sixth Floor, since it is set in just the same period and perhaps even the same neighborhood. While The Women on the Sixth Floor lacks the subtext and quirks that made even Truffaut’s slightest confections memorable, it is a feel-good film that hasn’t been so dumbed down that you’ll feel cheated at the end. On the contrary, you’ll want to prolong the experience and head for the nearest Spanish restaurant.