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Review: The Women on the 6th Floor

In 1960s Paris, a conservative couple's lives are turned upside down by a group of Spanish maids

The Women on the 6th Floor

Fabrice Luchini (left) is a boring stockbroker until his Spanish maid, Natalia Verbeke, changes his life. — Photo by: Courtesy of Strand Releasing

En español | Romantic comedies tend to rely heavily on formulaic plots, but in French director Philippe Le Guay's able hands the formula becomes fodder for a delightful comedy of mores and manners. Set in France during the early 1960s, where the seemingly unbridgeable gap of social class looms large, The Women on the 6th Floor tells the story of a group of sassy Spanish maids fleeing the Franco regime and searching for a better life in Paris. The women rent tiny rooms on the top floor of a building owned by stuffy stockbroker Jean-Louis Joubert (played by Fabrice Luchini, last seen by U.S. filmgoers in Portiche (2010), alongside Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu). 

See also: The Skin I Live In —  the latest movie from Pedro Almodóvar.

Joubert and his chilly wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), live a sheltered life of bourgeois comfort a few floors down. He works at the brokerage firm founded by his grandfather, and she fills up her day with hair appointments, lunch dates and shopping. When their longtime maid leaves, the couple decides to hire a Spanish replacement. Enter María, played with a mixture of candor and witty assertiveness by Argentinean actress Natalia Verbeke. Joubert immediately takes a liking to the new hire, who knows how to run the house while aptly tending to Suzanne's constant demands.

María also lives on the upper floor. This leads Joubert to start wondering, for the first time, about these women who clean the houses of the French upper class and speak the local language with a funny accent.

"They live above us and we know nothing about them," he says to his socialite wife, who seems more perplexed by his husband's awakening from his customary stupor than by any interest in the Spanish maids.

Le Guay's film might resort to caricature at times — the maids are true-to-form Spanish stereotypes: emotional, noisy and unrelentingly jovial; the French are stuck up — but the overall result is a satisfying comedy that alludes to deeper issues without beating the audience over the head with them.

Joubert inevitably falls for María but is almost equally smitten by the liveliness of the maids, who invite him to noisy dinners where wine flows and paella abounds, and turn to him for help for everything from fixing an old toilet to investment advice. As Joubert gets more involved in their lives, he becomes more estranged from his wife, her obsession with redecorating the couple's apartment and her gossipy acquaintances.

But when everything in the story seems to point in one direction, we are reminded by director Le Guay that this is not a Hollywood romantic comedy destined for a neat ending. Joubert's infatuation with María is not reciprocated, and she has her own unresolved family business in Spain. While each of Joubert's newfound friends seems to know about María's predicament, he is deliberately left out of the loop. How this problem is resolved adds a somber note to an otherwise lighthearted comedy, but also makes it all the more engaging.

You may also like: The Harvest, a documentary on child labor and migrant farmwork.

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