6 October 2011 | robert-temple-1
Absolutely delightful in every way
This is a pure delight. The director, Philippe Le Guay, has the perfect touch, never too light, never too heavy. And he is supported in this delicate balancing act by a marvellous cast, whose timing, tone and style are all perfectly attuned. The central performance in the film is given by the French comic actor Fabrice Luchini, an intelligent simpleton, a naïve bourgeois who has unexpectedly been let loose on Life. Luchini is a true marvel, a world class talent at understated comedy. He has at times the innocent puzzlement of silent comedian Harry Langdon come over his face, a kind of infantile bewilderment, but he is equally capable of snarling arrogantly as a domineering bourgeois buffoon and demanding that his boiled egg must boil for precisely three and a half minutes. He even admits that if he gets the correctly prepared egg in the morning, the rest of his day is glorious, but if he gets an egg which is too hard, his day is ruined. The task set to his maid is therefore going to determine his every day's mood! Luchini owns a large house in Paris (apparently, from what I could glimpse of a park scene, intended to be within walking distance of the quiet and sleepy Parc Monceau). He has inherited it and a prosperous brokerage and investment management business from his father. The film is set in 1962. Every day he goes to work to advise rich people how to invest their money. One of his clients is a glamorous rich widow, played unexpectedly in a cameo performance by the dazzler Audrey Fleurot from the police series ENGRENAGES (SPIRAL, 2005 onwards). Some wonderful laughs come from this association. Fleurot is reputed to be a man-eater, and Luchini's wife is worried that she will steal him from her, but little does she realize that he has barely noticed Fleurot (if you can imagine anyone not noticing Fleurot, which I cannot). This is a mere side event to the main tale. Much of Luchini's huge 19th century house is rented out to other families, and the maids of all of these haute-bourgeois people including his own live together in squalor in small servants' rooms on the sixth floor, hence the title of the film. Only one maid is of the traditional sort, an elderly Bretonne maid from Britanny, and she departs near the beginning of the film. All the rest are gabbling and gregarious Spanish women, who evidently in the 1960s were flocking to Paris to earn money to send home. They form their own tightly-knit sub-culture, invisible to their employers. Anyone who has been to Hong Kong will be familiar with the myriads of Philippino maids who are strewn all over Central every Sunday chattering away to each other in Tagalog. It is very much the same phenomenon. Luchini is married to the ultimate bourgeoise wife, formerly 'a country girl', who is now ruthlessly climbing the social ladder and, wallowing in spoilt self-pity, 'exhausts' herself every day having lunch with her friends and buying expensive dresses. She is played to perfection by Sandrine Kiberlain, veteran of 48 films, who is so often cast as a wife. Admirers of the classic L'APPARTEMENT (THE APARTMENT, 1996, see my review) will recall her waiting at the airport for her husband at the end of the film, with her wan smile and her freckles. But the main action of this film concerns the Spanish maids. While their spoilt rich employers below live lives of stultifying boredom and pointlessness, these impoverished maids, when they are not rushing off to mass and crossing themselves devoutly (all but the sullen one who has become an atheist because her parents were murdered in front of her by Franco's men), have tremendous fun, play the guitar, cook paella, dance a bit of flamenco, and live a vivacious life of their own in their rarified micro-climate on the sixth floor. When his Bretonne maid, who had served the family for thirty years, leaves, Luchini and his wife desperately need a replacement. The dishes are piled high in the sink, the lazy Kiberlain does not know how to work a washing-machine, and Luchini is desperate because he does not have a clean shirt left to wear to work. What can these poor suffering spoilt rich people do? A miracle occurs: one of the Spanish women has just had her niece turn up from Spain, a beautiful thirty-something played with inspired vivacity and satirical demeanour by Natalia Verbeke. She is an amazing actress, born in Argentina in 1975, moved to Spain was she was eleven, lived with a bullfighter, and has appeared in many Spanish TV series and films. When she becomes the new maid, a new life opens up for Luchini, and he realizes that he prefers the maids on the sixth floor for company to his own boring wife and his empty life. And he begins to fall for Natalia, which is hardly surprising, as she is so alluring. The film is at once a tasteful satire on the vacuities of the empty lives of the upper middle classes, a hilarious comedy, a sad commentary, a poignant insight into the silent suffering of people without any money, and the shattering clash of cultures which occurs when someone steps out of the one world and into the other. The film is such a joy, and its satire is so affectionate and gentle (which perhaps makes it all the more devastating), that we learn a lot about Life. And Life is in short supply these days. But prepare to laugh yourself silly, while crying sometimes. Those are the best films, aren't they?