The Women on the 6th Floor (Strand Releasing, NR)

Living in a garret may sound romantic, but trudging up six flights of stairs is probably a lot less fun when you’re pushing 60, carrying heavy bags, and have just been rudely informed that the elevator off limits to you.

 

The French have a word for it: Theatré de Boulevard, or boulevard theater. The name refers to the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, home in the 19th century to many theaters presenting middlebrow (and lower) popular entertainment. Today it suggests a play or film with broadly drawn characters and predictable yet entertaining plots that play with societal boundaries without seriously suggesting they be brought down. The Women on the 6th Floor is a boulevard comedy par excellence, a well-made film secure in its assumptions, which offers pleasant and mostly unchallenging entertainment if you’re willing to enter its world.

In Philippe Le Guay’s comedy, the women on the sixth floor are maids who rent tiny apartments from Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini), a stockbroker who owns the building. He lives in one of the lower-floor apartments with his too-skinny wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), and their two bratty kids (Camille Gigot and Jean-Charles Deval) when the latter are home from boarding school. It’s 1962 and the maids come mostly from Spain to work for the bourgeois French families who live in the neighborhood. Some of the maids are political refugees, some have simply come to make more money than they can earn at home, but their employers are not in the least interested in their individual stories. In fact, the trophy wives discuss their maids as casually as they might a new fashion in scarves (“Brittany maids are so over! They’re out!”) and have just about as much concern for their humanity (one recommends Spanish maids because they’re willing to work on Sundays and notes that hers is a real gem, so clean that “You even forget she’s Spanish”).

One thing is clear: These bourgeois families depend on the labor of their maids to keep their lives running smoothly. When the elderly Germaine (Michèle Gleizer) quits her job, chaos quickly descends on Jean-Louis’ household. It seems no member of the family is capable of cooking a meal, washing the dishes, or doing even the simplest laundry chores. Arriving to save the day is the charming, intelligent, and much younger Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who is fleeing an impoverished life and troubled past in Spain. Partly out of attraction to her, Jean-Louis starts to notice his sixth-floor tenants and begins spending more time in their company, while also doing little favors to help them out (e.g., finding a new apartment for one of the maids who needs to escape an abusive husband). You can guess where this is going. Maria in particular, and all the maids in general, play roles analogous to the Magical Negroes in American films, providing the mysterious spark of life which is missing from the world of the lighter-skinned, more fortunate characters.

The Women on the 6th Floor operates within clearly prescribed boundaries and succeeds on its own terms. The film evokes a real sense of time and place, thanks to Jean-Claude Larrieu’s cinematography, Pierre-François Limbosch’s production design, and Christian Gasc’s costumes, and the acting is strong all around. But there’s still one big hurdle to overcome. The foundational assumption of The Women on the 6th Floor is that the poor have more fun and lead richer lives than those unfortunate rich bastards who employ them and make most of the decisions which set the boundaries of their lives. Granted, this is an old trope in comedy, and suspension of disbelief is a basic requirement for enjoying fictional entertainment, but it still grates on my nerves. Let me put it this way: Living in a garret may sound romantic, but trudging up six flights of stairs is probably a lot less fun when you’re pushing 60, carrying heavy bags, and have just been rudely informed that the elevator off limits to you. Analogously, it’s one thing to spend some time living in a garret by choice, yet quite another to do it out of necessity and with the constant awareness that even that small privilege could be taken away from you due to someone else’s whim.

If you’re not sure about The Women on the 6th Floor, here’s a question that may help you make up your mind: Did you enjoy Potiche, François Ozon’s 2010 comedy about a trophy wife who proves there’s more to her than what is demanded by her societal role? There’s no Catherine Deneuve in The Women on the 6th Floor, and it’s set about 15 years earlier, but if you could overlook the political incorrectness to enjoy the craftsmanship and harmless comedy of Potiche, you’ll probably have a good time at The Women on the 6th Floor, as well. | Sarah Boslaugh

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