Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Help in France: The Women on the 6th Floor

It was a huge French box-office hit, portraying domestic servants in the 1960’s. It could be called France’s The Help, though it was released there well before the reigning American sleeper hit. In this case, the maids are Spanish and they are also great fun to be around. A middle-aged stockbroker learns this first-hand in Philippe Le Guay’s The Women on the 6th Floor (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Jean-Louis Joubert has lived his entire life in his family’s stately Parisian home, but the sixth floor might as well be another country—a distant province of Spain. It is there that his maid and the other neighborhood domestics rent single-occupancy rooms. Frankly, the conditions are pretty ugly up there, but Joubert would not know. His building manager handles all the upstairs details.

However, when the family’s longtime Breton maid up and quits, her Spanish replacement makes quite an impression on him. Pretty in a warm, earthy way rather than vacuously beautiful, María Gonzalez is just about everything his onetime trophy wife (or potiche) Suzanne is not. Suddenly, he is fixing the sixth floor plumbing and finding jobs for Gonzalez’s friends, all of which Joubert’s family finds a little strange.

Floor obviously addresses issues of upstairs-downstairs class distinctions, immigrant living standards, and even human rights under Franco (who was not dead yet at this time), but its politics are muted enough they can be easily ignored by those so inclined. More than anything, it is a film about a man learning to finally be comfortable in his own skin.

Fabrice Luchini is absolutely perfect as Joubert. Though it might sound thematically similar to his role in François Ozon’s Potiche, there is nothing shticky about his work here. Warm and winning, it is a refreshingly sympathetic portrait of a late middle-aged bourgeoisie man, quite a rarity in contemporary cinema. Likewise, Natalia Verbeke is equally charming (a word quickly at risk of gross overuse when discussing Floor) as the heartsick but still spirited Gonzalez. In contrast, there is no need to look up charming in a thesaurus for Sandrine Kiberlain’s Suzanne Joubert, but she is appropriately icy and brittle as the suspicious pampered wife.

Granted, Floor’s story arc holds no real surprises, but frankly, shocking revelations are not particularly welcome in romantic comedies. Still, Le Guay employs a remarkably light touch in the home stretch, steering the film away safely away from overly cloying sentimentalism.

Gentle and engaging, Floor is exactly the sort of foreign film that can breakout into the relative mainstream. Luchini’s crowd-pleasing work should also considerably boost his standing here in America. Recommended for general audiences (particularly those who really have to be cajoled into seeing a subtitled film), Floor opens this Friday (10/7) in New York at the Paris Theatre. It also launches the Fall 2011 season of the newly renamed Gold Coast International Film Festival’s Furman Film Series this Thursday (10/6) in Great Neck.