Friday, October 7, 2011

Downstairs, Upstairs

Luchini and Verbeke in The Women on the 6th Floor
The Women on the 6th Floor
Directed & written by Philippe Le Guay
Starring Fabrice Luchini, Natalia Verbeke, Sandrine Kiberlain, Carmen Maura
Released by Strand Releasing; opened October 7, 2011

If there was an MVP at the most recent Rendezvous with French Cinema series at Manhattan's Walter Reade Theater, it was actor Fabrice Luchini, one of today’s most ubiquitous and remarkably proficient screen presences. He’d already shown himself a deft master of comedy, drama and even tragedy in a three-decade career of films by the likes of Eric Rohmer, Anne Fontaine and Cedric Klapisch; in his two Rendezvous films, he was asked to carry considerable comic loads.

In Francois Ozon’s ‘70s pastiche Potiche, he stole every scene from the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Judith Godreche and Gerard Depardieu. And in The Women on the 6th Floor, a frivolous, far-fetched farce from Philippe Le Guay, he makes us believe that a respectable middle-aged stockbroker would fall head over heels for a lovely young Spanish maid (the delectable Natalia Verbeke) right under the not-so-watchful eye of his preoccupied wife (a pitch-perfect Sandrine Kiberlain).

Set in Paris in 1960, the movie centers around Jean-Louis Joubert, a stuffed-shirt who loses his long-time housekeeper after she mouths off one too many times about his high-strung wife Suzanne, whom the woman blames for the death of Jean-Louis’ beloved mother. After being told by friends that Spanish maids are all the rage (“French maids won’t work Sundays”), Suzanne hires Maria, a young woman just arrived from Spain and niece of one of the building’s veteran maids, Concepcion (an ageless Carmen Maura).

Maria, of course, turns out to be the perfect fit, even boiling finicky Jean-Louis’ eggs exactly as he wants them. Soon the boss eventually falls in love with his perky servant, but since this is a French comedy, there’s a bit more: Jean-Louis’ consciousness is raised by his close proximity to all the struggling Spanish maids, who live in cramped quarters on the sixth floor of his building. He not only gets involved in their personal lives (calling a plumber to fix their communal toilet, allowing one of the maids to use his home phone to call Spain for news on an impending family birth) but also has his eyes open as to why these women are in Paris working long hours for low pay: to escape Franco’s fascist government back home.

While Jean-Louis is busy becoming a more better--i.e., more liberal--man thanks to the Spanish maids, his wife initially assumes that his new strange behavior means he’s having an affair with an attractive middle-aged client she’s jealous of, not due to his and Maria’s budding romance. Director Le Guay doesn’t miss any opportunity for a shop-worn visual or plot point, so Jean-Louis’ dull days serving rich, conservative clients are juxtaposed with the maids’ buoyantly optimistic attitudes while working, eating, praying or relaxing on their days off. (Even Suzanne is moved to say, somewhat redundantly after what we’ve witnessed, “The women up there are alive, but down here we’re dead.”)

After moving into a spare room on the same floor as the women after Suzanne throws him out (he’s ecstatic that he has his own room for the first time since he was a child), Jean-Louis rolls up his sleeves and begins hanging out with the maids: he eats Spanish food with them, sings Spanish songs with them, and even drives them to Lisieux to pray at St. Theresa’s shrine. Also, after discovering that they are ignorantly keeping their savings in their room, he explains how the stock market works and how it’s best that they invest their money with him (ah, such carefree days!).

If it goes down more smoothly and cheerfully than it should, it’s primarily due to Luchini, who has great chemistry with his two leading ladies: Kiberlain plays Suzanne as the perfect neurotic foil, while the Argentine-born Verbeke, a bright screen presence as Maria, deserves even more substantial roles. Luchini smartly avoids the trap of hamming it up in order to sell his director’s gimmicky premise. Just the opposite, actually: the actor stays as cool as a cucumber, making Jean-Louis’ transformation gradual and believable, rather than going the easier route of ramming it down our throats with excessive leering and lip-smacking. Even his crooked, vaguely embarrassed smile is endearing.

Although asked to do foolish things both comic and melodramatic--like selling an implausibly happy ending that’s one romantic fantasy too many--Luchini never falters, with the result that The Women on the 6th Floor is far more amusing (and romantic) than it has any right to be.

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