An odd couple's classy romance
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov 11, 2011
The French movie "The Women on the 6th Floor," like the British TV series "Upstairs, Downstairs," has drama, comedy, romance and class politics. It also introduces an element of ethnic prejudice to the mix. The help in this charming and surprisingly deep import - set in 1960s Paris - are all Spanish, and their snooty masters and mistresses all French.
There's a sharp and funny scene early on in which several ladies of leisure compare the qualities of their Spanish maids, over lunch, as if they were evaluating dog breeds. But not all the employers are so bigoted or clinical.
Wealthy stockbroker Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) is introduced to the world of the Spanish domestics who live on the sixth floor of his building when he hires a beautiful new maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke). Soon he is going out of his way for Maria and her friends: fixing their stopped-up communal toilet; letting them use his phone for long-distance calls and helping them invest their money. Jean-Louis even moves into an empty room on the sixth floor himself, after his wife, Suzanne (a brittle Sandrine Kiberlain), accuses him of having an affair.
It's not with Maria, mind you. Although Jean-Louis has, in fact, begun to have feelings for Maria, Suzanne is jealous of one of her husband's clients.
In any event, Jean-Louis's stirrings are as much the result of politics as passion. One of Maria's friends (Lola Duenas) is a hard-boiled communist, and the film is more about Jean-Louis's awakening radicalization than a servant-and-master relationship.
As a love story, the movie is actually something of a disappointment, at least for anyone looking for a happy - or even tidy - ending. The open-endedness of the film will likely frustrate those expecting Jean-Louis and Maria to run off together, although its conclusion, halfway between unrequited and happily-ever-after, feels, in every other way, much more satisfying and honest.
As the couple at the center of the film, Luchini and Verbeke have a wonderful odd-couple chemistry. He's older and has a perpetual look of surprise on his face, as though he just sat on something sharp. It suits Jean-Louis's sweet sense of discovery. Verbeke has youth and intensity, but her earthiness and self-assurance grounds Maria's beauty. You wouldn't expect these two actors to play lovers, and in some sense that's not what Jean-Louis and Maria are. They're more like catalysts who inspire each other to become the people they were meant to be.
Unlike "Upstairs, Downstairs," here the servants live above the masters. In a way, that's true both literally and figuratively. Maria and her fellow domestics are better people than most of their bosses, Jean-
In the end, "The Women on the 6th Floor" is about two individuals from different rungs of the social ladder who try to meet in the middle. But it's also, to a poignant and tantalizing degree, about how that gap can never entirely be bridged.
Contains brief crude language and nudity. In French and Spanish with English subtitles.