I’ve virtually given up on British films, most of which are either heritage pieces or ‘Did You Call My Pint A Poof?’-style wideboy gangland movies. When we do try to get a mainstream film right we screw it up. Working Title wasted nearly ten years developing ‘Thunderbirds’, only to get it hilariously wrong by condescending to kids, the very thing the TV series on which it was based never did. The French, Spanish and Germans are the three European countries now consistently turning out good local films on interesting subjects, and when I’m in Europe I tend to pick up as many as I can.
While France limits its global sales by refusing to add subtitles, but Spain and Germany are more adept at getting their films to global audiences. I picked up the Franco-Spanish ‘Les Femmes de Sixieme etage’ (sorry, WordPress doesn’t seem to like accents) in a Fnac bargain bin, and it’s a gem.
If you’ve ever been to Spain and seen a big crown of Spanish ladies of a certain age break into spontaneous song (something that’s very easy to witness in the Southern half of the country) you’ll appreciate this period (1962) tale of the Spanish maids who live on the top floor of an old apartment building that’s home to a conservative couple who need a new maid.
Conditions on the 6th floor are primitive but the ladies, who service different apartments on the floors below, make the best of it. Enter Maria, who inflames the heart of her new employer and inspires him to improve conditions in the building he owns. But his interest spreads to an admiration for the maids’ perceived freedom of spirit and a desire to be part of it away from his airless marriage, until the ladies start pointing out that he is, and always will be, an employer…
For once, Carmen Maura isn’t the loudest personality on display. The maids function as a raucous and lovely team against the dried-out ladies of leisure on the floors below, and there are some laugh-aloud set pieces. The subjects of class and power are explored in a feelgood comedy that still feels less worthy than, say, the film version of ‘The Help’.
It’s a truism that if you make a film with a liberal agenda you’ll get critics complaining that it condescends, whereas if you make a film with a thuddingly conservative slant nobody says a word, and so it proves here. ‘Les Femmes’ gets a rough ride from the usual sneerier critics like Time Out New York and the Village Voice, but for anyone who remembers the kind of French apartment buildings typified here, with a suspicious ground-floor concierge and plenty of l’esprit d’escalier*, much will ring true. It’s a charming film.
*Lit: ‘Spirit of the staircase’ – When people living on different floors have arguments it’s always on the neutral ground of the landing, and it’s only ever as you’re walking away that you remember what you should have said.