A sporadically amusing, occasionally off-putting French farce, The Women on the 6th Floor recounts the relationship between a middle-aged Parisian stockbroker, circa 1962, and a half-dozen Spanish domestic workers who live on the sixth floor of the apartment building he owns. Reminiscent, in different ways, of James Brooks’s 2004 misfire Spanglish, and the recent summer hit The Help, this is another social comedy about a stuffy, middle-class protagonist awakening to the oppression of the poor, along with their home-cooking, spontaneity and zest for life.
Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) runs a third-generation investment business and lives in the apartment building where he was born with his wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), a spoiled provincial beauty who spends her day at dress-fittings, lunch and bridge, while the couple’s preteen sons are in boarding school. When their old retainer, Germaine, quits in a huff, the dirty shirts and dishes begin to pile up. Jean-Louis reports in bewilderment that he has no clean shirts for work. His wife suggests he wear a sweater. A new maid is obviously required.
As luck would have it, a dozen Spanish domestics are living on the sixth floor of their apartment building, including one gorgeous newcomer, Maria (Argentine actress Natalia Verbeke), who has recently arrived from Spain to join her aunt, Concepcion (Pedro Almodovar regular Carmen Maura). On her first day trying out for her new job, Maria enlists the rest of the women to help her, who, in a house-cleaning montage accompanied by the sounds of Itsy-Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini, leave the apartment gleaming. Jean-Louis promptly hires her at well above regular salary.
Through the new maid, Jean-Louis discovers the other women, refugees of Franco’s dictatorship, who live in single rooms on the sixth floor, without hot water or heating. Jean-Louis hires a plumber to unplug the chronically plugged toilet, thus immediately endearing himself to all the women on the floor, except the chain-smoking communist (Lola Duenas). She’ll take just a few more scenes to come around.
Coming home from work early one day, Jean-Louis catches a look at Maria in the shower and the vision of the sexy young stranger temporarily invigorates his marital life, before eventually pushing it toward crisis. As Jean-Louis becomes enamoured with the Spanish women’s music, paella, religious observances and wine, his wife, Suzanne, assumes he’s having an affair. The chief suspect is a brassy investor and known man-eater named Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot). Suzanne kicks him out of the apartment, straight into bohemian bliss: Jean-Louis moves upstairs to the maids’ floor, where he shares their bathroom, eats sandwiches in his room, listens to records and finds opportunities to get closer to Maria.
Even his wife, Suzanne, listening to the flamenco music and cheery voices from upstairs, comes to see the error of her stuck-up, bourgeois ways. As she tells her Parisian friends: “ Those up there are alive; down here we’re dead.”
The Women on the 6th Floor is intended as a kind of fairy tale, but unfortunately it happens to be one with unintended creepy undertones. Whatever allowances you make for the mores of time period or culture, writer-director Philippe Le Guay’s script seems oddly tone-deaf to the power imbalance in Jean-Louis and Maria’s growing relationship. The result is a movie that risks coming across as a bit of dirty-old-man wish fulfilment rather than a credible portrait of an intergenerational romance.
Fabrice Luchini is a veteran actor of French cinema since the days of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), and his soulful gaze and slightly rabbity overbite help make Jean-Louis’s infatuation seem more foolish than intimidating. But that doesn’t entirely alleviate the discomfort. Apart from a few sparks of feisty indignation, Maria’s decisions are so circumscribed by either necessity or gratitude that she barely comes across as a free agent.
Ostensibly a film about a mid-life awakening, The Women on the 6th Floor instead reminds us once again that it’s good to be rich. When things get boring, you can always throw it all away. In contrast, Maria’s poverty is impossible to shake until the intervention of her rescuer from the apartment below.
The Women on the 6th Floor
- Written and directed by Philippe Le Guay
- Starring Fabrice Luchini and Natalia Verbeke
- Classification: NA