The Women on the 6th Floor

THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR. Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke, Carmen Maura, and Lola Duenas. Directed by Philippe le Guay. Rated PG (Mild sexual references, nudity and coarse language). 102 min.

This film is a social comedy that contrasts the earnestness of middle-class family living with the good humour and earthiness of Spanish cleaning ladies. The maids live and work in an apartment building in Paris in the 1960s. The film pursues the adventures of a wealthy stock-broker, Monsieur Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), who gets pulled into the culture of the maids living above him in his apartment building. Down below, he leads a disciplined life as husband and father, while his wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), moves unfeelingly in the socialite circles of Paris.

Suzanne spends most of her day at milliners, restaurants, and playing cards. Joubert has spent most of his life in his apartment, and cannot happily face his day without his egg being cooked just right. His difficult children have been sent to boarding school to get them out of the way. Slowly, the drabness and routine of his personal life are taken over by the joyful community and good spirits of the maids above him. Through them, spontaneity comes back into his life. His wife notices the change, and falsely accuses him of having an affair. She tells him to leave their apartment, and he moves upstairs into a bedroom of his own, where he revels in his new-found freedom. It is the first time, he tells the maids, that he has had a family.

The movie is charmingly directed by Philippe le Guay. The pace and style of the film is light-hearted, the script is witty, and the movie is directed briskly. The whole film  offers a gentle look at social class.

Class implications permeate the movie. Joubert and Suzanne dismiss their long-time maid (Carmen Maura) and hire a pretty young Spanish maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke), whose Aunt, Concepcion (Carmen Maura), lives upstairs. The servants upstairs are country women, who are illegal immigrants looking for a better life, and Joubert and Suzanne are unaware that their building is filled with refugees from Franco’s Spain. Through hiring Maria as their housemaid, they come to learn how insensitive they are to those around them, and both Joubert and Suzanne finally realise that there is more to life than what they realised. But it is too late. Joubert has fallen in love with Maria, and is eager to cross the social and cultural divide.

The film’s messages become strained when Maria falls in love with Joubert, 30 years her senior, and not even his ardent interest when he catches her naked in a shower makes genuine sense of the relationship that develops between them. But his withdrawal from the boredom of his routines makes a telling social point. Joubert becomes the benefactor of the maids. He hires someone to fix their toilet, reroutes their mail, enjoys paella with them, joins them on a fun-picnic, and tries to learn their language, and gradually endears himself to them. He gets to know all of the maids upstairs, and only the angry communist among them (Lola Duenas) resents him.

Fabrice Luchini is a veteran actor of French cinema and his performance as Joubert in mid-life crisis is full of soulful, and self-effacing charm. A little reminiscent of “The Help” (2011), the comedy is good-natured, but much slighter. There are certain moral lessons in a wealthy stock-broker awakening to the oppression of the poor, but they are never really elaborated, and the contrast of the rich and the poor is dealt with in a way that doesn’t spoil the film’s lightness of touch. Joubert gives, and Maria is always grateful to receive, the refugee implications are tangential, and some off-putting stereotyping is used to further lighten the load.

This is good natured French comedy designed for a lot of smiles, and some laughs. It lacks real social bite, but its obvious charm is bound to appeal.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Palace Films.

Out December 15th., 2011.