Home Video Hovel- The Women on the 6th Floor
It’s hard to watch The Women on the 6th Floor without noticing that it has some striking similarities to The Help. Both won best supporting actress statuettes (Octavia Spencer at the Oscars and Carmen Maura at the Caesars). Both feature a large ensemble of actors. Both revolve around the cultural and class divide between master and servant in the early 1960s. Quite frankly, both have moments of laughable simplicity in their dealings with race relations.
The story of the film revolves around the upscale apartment of 1960’s French upper-class couple Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) Joubert. After losing their maid of many years, the couple sets out to find a new maid. Lucky for them, their search coincides with the arrival of a flurry of Spanish immigrants looking for work as maids. Ultimately, the couple decides on Maria Gonzalez, one of the maids who moves into the titular sixth floor.
It may or may not surprise anyone to discover that the film intends to use this setup to illustrate the social stratification of the building by commenting on the difference between rich French socialites and poor Spanish maids. You may or may not be surprised to learn that the movie finds many ways to hit home said differences, many of which involve self-satisfied French dialogue about wages, hiring prices and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. There are several clunker moments early on including one scene in which the help are shocked to discover that only the owners are allowed to use the elevator. This would be more forgivable if Maria (played superbly by Natalia Verbeke) didn’t spend the first 30 minutes of the film with a look of utter terror in her eyes.
Once the film begins to get over the novelty of the difference between the upper and lower class, it begins to find what sea legs it has. One particular thread that works in the film revolves around Jean-Louis’ irrational obsession with having the perfect boiled egg. American audiences will notice that this egg is brown as opposed to the more homogenized American white egg. Perhaps this is a sort of motif, as the film seems to have a more earthy visual tone. When Maria finds herself up to the challenge of making the perfect egg, the eggstacy on his face becomes palpable.
Another early scene involves Maria enlisting the help of several maids from the neighborhood who clean up the apartment while singing along to a French version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” While utterly unoriginal and quite kitschy, I’d be lying if I said this moment didn’t make me smile. We also see Jean-Louis heroically vowing to fix the toilet on the sixth floor.
It is about at this moment that the film officially morphs into a bizarre Thomas McCarthy-directed French version of The Help. There’s no reason to set this in the 1960’s other to take advantage of the memory of Franco and Spain’s outdated reputation as Europe’s backwoods. The film telegraphs at every moment how abusive the couple has been to their maids in the past that it seems so absurd that they go out of their way to be nice to the new maids.
This makes the general conceit of the film somewhat toothless. The owners arc too early so there is nowhere for the characters to go after about the 20 minute point where they begin to realize how lives of their maids are hard and begin to look at them as human beings instead of just hired help.
All the characters are oddly patronizing of the maids. This is the kind of movie were people send apologetic glances every time someone mentions Franco. The Jouberts are constantly saying things like “Oh, you’re Spanish; I love Spain” and “Spaniards aren’t touchy, they’re proud; That’s different” as if an entire nation’s behavior can be extrapolated based on the behavior of this one maid.
Perhaps another key problem is the lack of any key protagonist. There aren’t any bad guys in this film, which kind of disappointed me. With such undynamic do-gooders, I kept longing for what Lars Von Trier’s version of this film would look like or at least for James Spader character from Secretary to step in and give Maria a swing of his backhand. It turns out, benevolence just isn’t that dramatically interesting.
The film compounds frustration with a truly awkwardly executed subplot with Jean-Louis and Maria. One scene sees Maria trying to teaching Jean-Louis to pronounce the ‘J’ in Spanish language, by holding his throat. I feel the film wants to ad a moment of sexual tension here but it really just looked like she was choking him. If you haven’t figured out where Maria and Mr.’s relationship is going by this point, you are clearly in denial.
Through a series of contrivances, he ends up having to move into the same apartment buildings as all the maids. Great opportunity for hijinks right? Wrong. Instead of a lot of great comic moments, we get him listening to the radio and teaching the maids how to play the stock market while the maids teach him to speak Spanish and ask the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf. In a classic moment of bold cultural contrast, the maids even take Jean-Louis on a trip into the countryside to eat Spanish omelettes.
The film’s resolution of the romantic storyline between Jean-Louis and Maria is equally clumsy, involving a last minute plot contrivance that results in a dreaded “Five Years Later” postlude. Despite these plot weaknesses, there is quite a bit to admire in this film. Clearly anyone who is watching this film isn’t necessarily going to get a tour de force in directing but that’s not to say the direction is mediocre. Costume design and art design are gorgeous. The film accentuates the glamor of the apartments with rich amber tones. Stylistically, the film remains quite charming if unassuming as Le Guay utilizes several long over the shoulder tracking shots of the maids walking down narrow hallways with food or clothes.
Perhaps what segments of the film work do so because of the performances. Fabrice Luchini embraces Jean-Louis’ clueless awkwardness in his relationship with the maids just enough to be adorable but not so much to be grating. Cesar winner Carmen Maura brings boisterous life force to the flatly scribed role Concepcion Ramerez. While Maura is quite good in her role, its frustrating to see her boxed by the writing when we’ve seen her so dynamic in her collaborations with Almodovar.
However, the real standout performance of the film is a short scene-stealing cameo byMichele Gleizer (the mother from Europa Europa) as the Joubert’s previous maid who quits in a surprisingly confrontational early scene. In one scene, Gleizer blows everyone else in the frame away and her showdown with Jean-Louis provides one of the film’s few truly dramatic moments.
Again, The Women on the 6th Floor couldn’t be called a bad film as much as an unnecessary film. The charm of its performances is often overshadowed by clumsy dialogue, unlikely plot developments and obvious thematic platitudes. However, if you liked The Help but wished it was in French, this film is for you.