Paris, 1960. Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini, Potiche) lives a bourgeois existence absorbed in his work, cohabitating peacefully with his neurotic socialite wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain, Mademoiselle Chambon) while their children are away at boarding school. The couple's world is turned upside-down when they hire a Spanish maid Maria (Natalia Verbeke). Through Maria, Jean-Louis is introduced to an alternative reality just a few floors up on the building's sixth floor, the servants' quarters. He befriends a group of sassy Spanish maids (Pedro Almodovar regular Carmen Maura, Lola DueÃ±as, Berta Ojea, Nuria Sole, Concha Galan), refugees of the Franco regime, who teach him there's more to life than stocks and bonds, and whose influence on the house will ultimately transform everyone's life.
Set in 1960's Paris, France, The Women on the 6th Floor is the story of an affluent French couple and the relationship that they have with their poor, Spanish housekeeper. Stockbroker Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini from Beaumarchais the Scoundrel) owns the building where he grew up and where he and his wife Suzanne (Alias Betty's Sandrine Kiberlain) now live. When the couple get a new maid - a young, Spanish woman named Maria (Natalia Verbeke from Dot the I) - Jean-Louis finds himself drawn to her, eventually meeting all of the other maids in the building and spending time with them on the 6th floor, where all of the Spanish "help" lives. Jean-Louis becomes friends with the housekeepers, first by doing simple favors like fixing their bathroom and giving them rides, and eventually going so far as to help one of them get out of an abusive relationship. When it becomes apparent that he has more than simple employer-employee feelings for Maria, Suzanne gets suspicious, and the personal and professional lives of all three of them are changed forever.
Directed by Philippe Le Guay (Nightshift, The Cost of Living) from a script he co-wrote with Jerome Tonnerre (Intimate Strangers), The Women on the 6th Floor is a cute little movie about class and race differences, and how everyone is basically the same, no matter where they come from or where they are now. Jean-Louis and Suzanne have wealth, but are trapped in a stale, loveless relationship with no fulfillment or happiness. The maids, on the other hand, lack all of the comforts that money brings but have each other, and, despite all of the stress and strife in their lives, they are more optimistic and happy than the Jouberts. When Jean-Louis infiltrates the maids' circle, he sees that they have the same hopes, dreams and feelings as the rich people, just without the same opportunities.
There is one scene in particular that drives home the theme of The Women on the 6th Floor. After the Jouberts have a party at which one of the hired members of the staff hits on Maria and Jean-Louis fires him, Maria tells Jean-Louis that he is nothing more than a boss to her. When Maria shows up at one of the 6th floor dinners, Jean-Louis is there, and she sees how much the other women like him. At the end of the night, she changes her mind, telling him that he is "not just a boss." This is the point of no return - the pair's relationship has officially gone from employer-employee to friendship, and there is no going back from there.
By opening himself up to the new ideas that the maids represent, Jean-Louis learns as much about himself as he learns about them. By realizing that the ladies all have their own back stories and histories, he sees them not just as hired help, but as people. And that, in the end, is what The Women on the 6th Floor is all about - embracing the little differences between people instead of fearing them.
The score for The Women of the 6th Floor was written by Jorge Arriagada, one of the most prolific composers working in French cinema today. Arriagada shows off his versatility by choosing to merge the two prominent cultures in the film onto the soundtrack. He creates a type of mash-up of French strings and Spanish flamenco guitar that captures the melding of the two nationalities in the film. The score gets a bit redundant at times, sounding like different parts of the same song instead of different pieces of music, but the effect is still indisputable - this film celebrates both French and Spanish culture, and the score reflects that fact.
The Women on the 6th Floor is billed as a comedy, and at that it fails. It's a great feel-good movie, but it is not funny. Maybe the humor gets lost in the translation (the film is, obviously, in French and Spanish), maybe the subtitles are not accurate, or maybe the French have a different idea of funny, but the film is very light on laughs. It deals with serious subject matter like adultery, spousal abuse and the oppression of Franco's Spain, and does so without getting too heavy, but has the respect to not joke about it, either. Rather than make a farce out of the class and racial differences in the film, The Women on the 6th Floor celebrates these differences, but it is at the expense of the intended comedy. The film is wildly entertaining and extremely heartwarming, but not very funny.
October 7, 2011