October 21, 2011
By Marc Glassman
The Women on the 6th Floor
Philippe Le Guay, director and co-script w/Jerome Tonnerre
Starring: Fabrice Luchini (Jean-Louis Jaubert), Sandrine Kiberlaine (Suzanne Jaubert), Natalia Verbeke (Maria), Carmen Maura (Concepcion), Lola Duenas (Carmen), Concha Galan (Pilar)
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The French have phrases that work well even in translation; for example, this one: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Those words seem all too appropriate for the French comedy The Women on the 6th Floor. Philippe Le Guay’s story is as old as la Comedie-Francaise; versions of it must have amused audiences in the 19th century. It’s the tale of the conservative couple undone by their own pretences and the natural–innocent but inherently radical–ways of their servants. The stuffy but apparently liberal class system in Paris is held up to mild ridicule in this kind of farce but although occasionally revolutionary ideas are exchanged, the tone always moves towards the charming, acceptable norm.
Le Guay’s film is set in 1962, a time when de Gaulle’s conservative Fifth Republic was being established after the ferocious and divisive Algerian War. Jean-Louis Jaubert (Fabrice Luchini) is an investment broker, who has successfully run the family firm for decades. He lives in a beautiful apartment on the Right Bank in Paris, probably in the First or Fourth arrondissement. It’s a classically constructed building with five floors of apartments and a sixth, very shabby floor for the servants.
Jaubert has lived in the building all his life and even has fond memories of the sixth, where he turned a storage space into a playroom when he was young. Now’s he’s middle-aged and upper-middle-class with Suzanne, his attractive but dull wife, and two sons. When the Jaubert’s long-time northern French servant quits, the Jauberts hire Maria, a beautiful young Spanish woman to replace her.
Maria’s aunt Concepcion is already working in the apartment building as are a host of remarkable life-embracing Spanish women, all refugees from a bad economic situation in their home country and, in at least one case, a principled opposition to Franco and the Fascists who won the Civil War.
Canadian audiences will have to know a bit of history (or catch references quite quickly) to understand the context of Le Guay’s film. Assuming one does, what flows is relatively funny. Maria’s presence disrupts Jean-Louis and his values. Fascinated by her, he spends time upstairs, meeting the other Spanish maids and working to fix the injustices visited on them.
He gets a plumber to fix their washroom, finds a new apartment for a maid whose husband is abusing her and celebrates another maid’s engagement by offering the women vintage bottles of Bordeaux wine. Eventually, he falls out with his wife and decides to move upstairs. There’s an interlude where he finds his personal liberation, returning to his childhood room and befriending the Spanish woman.
What’s that other French phrase? Cherchez la femme? Of course, Jean-Louis has to pursue Maria; this is a classic tale, after all. But, given all we know now about sexual politics, the film moves into problematic terrain as soon as the middle-aged Frenchman goes after the beautiful Spaniard.
What was Le Guay thinking? Apparently in the land of Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn, it’s still acceptable for the older rich man to bed the attractive younger woman. Frankly, it’s unlikely to fly here. The Women on the 6th Floor won’t attract a large audience in Canada—but the film is well made and deserves mild approval instead of outright huzzahs or rhubarbs.