The Chambermaid: Dirty Pretty Things, by David Bax
Hotels, especially luxury hotels, must be odd places to work. People scraping by on low wages grind through their workdays while occupying the same space as rich folks on vacation or traveling for their comparatively cushy jobs. That’s probably why there have been so many movies on the subject, from France (Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl; Pascale Ferran’s Bird People) to England (Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) to the United States (Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan). Now, with Lila Avilés’ stunning debut feature The Chambermaid, we can add Mexico to that list.
Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is a single mother who travels by bus two hours each way to work every day cleaning rooms at one of the fanciest hotels in Mexico City. Those details about her life outside of work are only gradually pieced together, though, since Avilés camera never leaves the hotel grounds. All we see of Eve is the part of her life where she not only works but takes GED-type classes, eats lunch, pines for items left behind in the lost and found and occasionally calls home to check on her son.
The Chambermaid can’t be said to have a plot so much as a rhythm. Momentum is built through our growing familiarity with Eve’s processes and rituals, both mandated (smoothing the covers of a freshly made bed with her broom handle) and private (ferreting pieces of popcorn away inside empty mint wrappers and lining them up along the window in the employee bathroom).
Avilés also creates a sense of forward motion aesthetically. Her tight, widescreen frame is almost comically at odds with the open, modernist high rise in which Eve toils. Stocking bathrooms with towels and toiletries, she repeatedly ducks in and out of the unmoving frame. These guidelines shift almost imperceptibly over time, though. What seems to be a strict rule against close-ups is eventually tested, if not broken. And, in one of the most striking moments, the heretofore unwavering gray and white color palette of the hotel is dashed when Eve gets a look at the soft reds and the warm wood of the penthouse suite.
That same understated confidence, along with a perfectly pitched performance by Cartol, is what gives the film its simmering tension. Eve’s fellow employees play a game in which they see how long they can hold onto a metal rod with a slowly increasing current of electricity running through it. The Chambermaid often feels just like that masochistic lark; something bad could befall Eve or any of her financially insecure colleagues at any moment and it’s forever possible that it’s already begun to happen without us or them realizing it.
As formally sound and rich as The Chambermaid is, Eve’s precariousness is the real, political heart of the movie. As we witness her guarded reserve in her work life, punctured by the warm extrovert she becomes when on the phone with her son or a friend, we understand that navigating the miniature hierarchies imposed by capitalism–not vacuuming or cleaning toilets–is her real job. And hard work and concepts like “deserve” have distressingly little to do with where any of us find ourselves at the end of the day.