Some people in love with French films, baguettes and Bordeaux wines consider themselves Francophiles. I like all those things, but I harbor a special affection for the Spanish, as does The Women On The Sixth Floor – a movie playing this week at the Edina Theater.
Although I don’t know if there is a word for those of us who love the culture and cuisine south of the Pyrenees, I do know that if you love Spain or the Spanish – think: Dali, Lorca, Bunuel, Velazquez, Picasso – you need to see this movie.
Directed by Philippe Le Guay, the movie is about a French bourgeois family living in a plush Paris apartment in the 1960s. The family’s French maid (the woman who raised the family’s two boys) quits, leaving the house unacceptably untidy. Thus the wife, Suzanne, who visits a dressmaker, plays bridge and is constantly trying to remove herself from her country girl past, has to find a new maid. Luckily, Maria has arrived fresh from Franco’s Spain in search of housekeeping work.
And since Maria is able to make the perfect egg for Jean-Louis (the husband), she gets the job. She works 15-hour days and sleeps on the apartment’s top floor with a group of sassy and sonorous Spanish maids. From here, the movie works its magic.
Jean-Louis, played excellently by Fabrice Luchini, becomes infatuated with Maria, whose beauty rivals Velazquez’s brush, and all of a sudden he’s enamored with all things Spanish – the language, the art, the politics, the women who sleep on the sixth floor and live without running water or working toilets.
In order to impress Maria, he starts helping the women out and finds them to be delightful people, each full of stories and none two the same.
It’s in this realization of the other – that there is beauty where you might not expect it – that the movie shines brilliantly, casting multiple, although not entirely unconnected, themes out of the prism of its story.
There is the coming together of two worlds: that of the posh, condescending French and that of the homesick, stoic Spanish diaspora. There is the outline of a love story, the shadow of a midlife crisis; there’s so much going on! The action is both fluid and unsuspected, like a waterslide in the dark.
The movie also shows, perhaps not purposefully, how disconnected cultures can be. It seems amazing to me that the French in this movie could be so indifferent to the horror of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Imagine if Wisconsin suffered a war where neighbor killed neighbor, its greatest living poet died by firing squad and a tyrant ruled after for decades. How could you not sympathize or seek to understand the citizens of that wounded state?
Then again, on the national level, we Americans are notoriously ignorant of anything that happens outside our Facebook pages or immediate social group. But that’s another issue entirely.
Back to the movie. It’s no tour de force or blockbuster, but it is a film with verve and detail. No character comes off as a caricature; it’s an example of wonderful cinematic storytelling.
It will leave you thirsting for garnacha and trying to scoop the pronunciation of the Spanish jota out of your throat.