Women on the 6th Floor, The

By Michael T. Dennis

As an exploration of the social class divide, Phillippe Le Guay’s “The Women on the 6th Floor” is not particularly original: The movie considers what happens when love, money and crisis come together in the lives of two seemingly very different people.

Just below the women of the title, wealthy stockbroker Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) lives a quiet, comfortable existence in his ancestral Parisian home, flanked by his distant wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain). Jean-Louis’ mother has recently passed away, and soon the long-time maid is sobbing her way out the door as well.

As this is Paris in the early-1960s, there’s no shortage of  Spanish maids, women displaced by Franco’s oppressive regime, which followed the Spanish Civil War.  Like making a trip to the grocery store, Suzanne visits the local Catholic church to select the most able-bodied applicant, It turns out to be María, a señorita with a rosy glow but also an independent streak.

María comes to work and live in the house, sharing the crowded upstairs slum with other local servant-residents, while spending long days in the spacious, stodgy home below. Jean-Louis immediately takes a liking to her, which swells to romantic proportions as he spends more time watching her clean and cook for his family.

But “Women on the 6th Floor” is more than just the drama of a man falling for his maid. Through María, Jean-Louis enters the unknown world of the 6th floor, an annex of his own home, unexplored ever since he was a child. Once he sees the immigrants’ deplorable living conditions, he makes it his mission to perform a humanitarian rescue within the building’s walls.

The process raises questions of Jean-Louis’ intentions, not only when it comes to María but also whether he’s being motivated by a sense of charity or simply living out a smug extension of his upper class superiority.

The women call Jean-Louis out on his attempts to fit in, making it known that for a man who has never been lacking in material comforts to relate to people who have lost everything is no easy task. Troubles downstairs (a paranoid wife and two bratty sons) drive Jean-Louis closer to the women, all the way across a wide social gap, and up a very divisive flight of stairs.

Even though the title implies an ensemble cast, “The Women on the 6th Floor” takes shape more as a love triangle; one corner is formed by the appeal of an easy, conventional lifestyle, while another is María, backed by a chorus of female voices. Jean-Louis stands in the middle, a 50-something trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.

It’s unfortunate that Le Guay doesn’t give us more of the women. Their gossip sessions, elaborate Spanish meals and dark pasts make them endlessly interesting. Even as Jean-Louis establishes himself as a fixture at their dinner table, we only get a glimpse into their lives.

Other than Fabrice Luchini in the role of Jean-Louis, who may look familiar from his roles in films by French masters Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, most of the cast will be unknown to an American audience. This is a benefit, as it makes the period setting easier to believe and the everyday comedy feel more authentic.

That sense of time and place is an important element that makes “The Women on the 6th Floor” stand out from similar films.  Paris of the 1960s is a place where the old guard is still in charge, and youth revolution is still the better part of a decade away. There are customs and decorum to observe, which makes Jean-Louis’ trips upstairs all the more unconventional.

“The Women on the 6th Floor” has more in common with movies that explore the classical distinction between servants and the served, such as Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece “The Rules of the Game” or Robert Altman’s tongue-in-cheek homage, “Gosford Park” (2001).

It would be easy to label “The Women on the 6th Floor” a comedy of manners, but the satire is too light and inoffensive. Instead it’s about a character confronting his own humanity, and realizing how close he has come to losing it.

Cast

Jean-Louis Joubert—Fabrice Luchini

Suzanne Joubert—Sandrine Kiberlain

María Gonzalez—Natalia Verbeke

Concepción Ramirez—Carmen Maura

Carmen—Lola Dueñas

Dolores Carbalan—Berta Ojea

Credits

Vendôme Production, France 2 Cinema and SND

Distributed by Strand Releasing

Directed by Phillippe Le Guay

Written by Phillippe Le Guay and Jérôme Tonnerre

Producers, Etienne Comar and Phillippe Rousselet

Original Music, Jorge Arriagada

Cinematographer, Jean-Claude Larrieu

Editor, Monica Coleman

Casting, Tatiana Vialle

Production Designer, Pierre-François Limbosch