Film Review: The Women on the 6th Floor

Exceedingly delightful, life-affirming French comedy about an early 1960s clash of class and cultures in a posh Parisian apartment building is irresistible entertainment.

Co-writer/director Philippe Le Guay, taking a little inspiration from his life growing up with a Spanish nanny, delivers a savvy sociopolitical period rom-com that will have art-house fans feverishly spreading the good word. With bright stars Fabrice Luchini (Potiche, etc.) and Sandrine Kiberlain (Mademoiselle Chambon, etc.) as a bourgeois couple rousted from snobby torpor by their eponymous upstairs Spanish maid tenants, The Women on the 6th Floor also provides a clever metaphor for early to mid-’60s France. Humor abounds as the tired Gaullist and Franco governments confront the emerging progressive, radical tidal waves of change.

The story begins in 1962 as Parisians Jean-Louis Joubert (Luchini) and wife Suzanne (Kiberlain) carry on as usual in entrenched bourgeois comfort. He attends to the conservative brokerage firm founded by his grandfather and she bides her time like any socially prominent wife of leisure with lunch dates, hair appointments, shopping, gossip—the tough stuff.

Drama flares when the couple fire their longtime maid Germaine (Michèle Gleizer), who had been loyal to Jean-Louis’ recently deceased mother who lived with the family. A replacement must be found, certainly one like Germaine, who is able to perfectly boil Jean-Louis’ breakfast egg (three-and-a-half minutes is the magic number).

Meanwhile, a gaggle of chirpy Spanish maids living in the cramped upper quarters of the Jouberts’ building gather at a bus depot to welcome Maria (Natalia Verbeke), the lovely niece of Concepción (Pedro Almodóvar favorite Carmen Maura), the calming mother figure of these hard-working ex-pats. Others in the greeting party include Carmen (Lola Dueñas), the vocal anti-Franco socialist activist of the group whose parents were victims of fascism; Dolores (Berta Ojea), tormented by nasty building concierge Madame Triboulet (Annie Mercier), who tosses her family mail; Teresa (Nuria Solé), so eager to find a French husband; and Pilar (Concha Galán), a victim of spousal abuse.

Maria, after passing the egg-boiling ordeal with her perfect timing, permanently joins the Joubert household as the new maid. When she helps Jean-Louis move his mother’s belongings to storage upstairs, he finally grows aware of the unpleasant conditions they endure (blocked toilets, tiny rooms, concierge harassment, etc.).

Soon, landlord Jean-Louis is paying attention to bettering the maids’ lives just as they begin enriching his narrow life. For the maids, bathrooms work, Dolores can now communicate with family, the servants’ cash now goes from mattresses into profitable securities, Pilar gets an apartment away from her abusive husband, and Jean-Louis provides the ladies with transportation for the occasional picnic or religious pilgrimage.

He joins them for a festive dinner or evening of singing and dance as he grows not just closer to his tenants but to their ability to enjoy and share. Touched by their openness and embrace of life, Jean-Louis delves into Spanish culture and language; he enters a new world. He gets closer to Maria. They connect, they disconnect and life goes on.

After a misunderstanding sends Suzanne into a huff when she believes her husband is cheating on her with his client, the much-married siren Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot), banished Jean-Louis moves out and upstairs to humble quarters near the maids in the storage room for his mother’s belongings. He quite naturally becomes “one of the girls” and for the first time enjoys a room alone, all to himself.

Other sociopolitical attitudes of this transitional decade emerge from Jean-Louis and Suzanne’s spoiled brats Bertrand (Camille Gigot) and Olivier (Jean-Charles Deval), who visit from prep school with notions of revolution. Other currents emit from Suzanne’s insufferably gossipy and social-climbing friends Colette (Marie Armelle Deguy) and Nicole (Muriel Solvay).

When matters shift to Spain a few years later, Maria has already revealed her own complications and Suzanne her own surprises. It’s left to Jean-Louis to deliver his own coup.

Happily, The Women on the 6th Floor is hardly confined to the stuffy Joubert apartment and cramped maids’ quarters; it exhales to the broader Parisian quartier, the beautiful French countryside and sunny Spain.

Thanks to set design from Pierre-François Limbosch and costumes by Christian Gasc, the film richly evokes its time and places as the new order (and disorder!) encroach. Le Guay also assures the period feel with his attention to minute details like the newspapers read, the familiar pop tunes heard. And Jorge Arriagada’s enchanting score is infused with the film’s mingling political, social and emotional strains.