Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs in French, Spanish, and Polka Dot Bikinis

The Women on the Sixth Floor” is a delight.  It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s light and fluffy.  It takes place in 1962, and you know early on how much fun this is going to be when the women on the sixth floor (who are all Spanish) sing along with the radio that’s playing a French cover of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

The fabulous Fabrice Luchini is Monsieur Jean-Louis Joubert and Sandrine Kiberlain is his taut wife Suzanne. These well to do, too comfortable people lead dull lives, their adolescent sons dispatched to boarding school much of the time.  He goes off daily to work in the family brokerage house, she engages in social events, charitable events, visits to the dressmaker, just exhausting stuff.  One day the Jouberts’ long-time family maid Germaine leaves in a huff when Madame Joubert chooses to change a few things her deceased mother-in-law had done in the household.  Michèle Gleizer is pouty and put-upon but still amusing as Germaine, especially when her neighbors upstairs on the chilly sixth floor treat her to a good time and cheap wine. 
(C) Vendome Production
The Jouberts are utterly incompetent — she cannot wash a dish or iron a shirt, he doesn’t know how to function without someone taking care of him.  It’s an emergency, and there are plenty of Spanish women in town to work as maids from early in the morning until late at night for the bourgeoisie.  El patron.  The boss. 

Mr. Joubert is introduced to life on the 6th floor, where all the maids for the wealthy families in the building live.  His “exhausted” wife sends him upstairs on an errand, and it’s as if he’s gone through a forbidden door.  The 6th floor has small rooms for the maids to live in, a stopped-up toilet, a communal sink that has only cold water, and no heat.  The world of the 6th floor is alien to Mr. Joubert, and consequently fascinating.  He spends more and more time with these women, and begins to discover unknown aspects of real life and of himself.  And, of course, he falls in love with Maria.

Natalie Verbeke is the new maid, Maria Gonzalez, who gives as good as she gets with courtesy and grace. She has a calm and restful face, and then breaks into a breathtaking smile.
Carmen Maura is her aunt, Concepión, full of love for family, sending her money home to her husband, who’s building a house for her, which will have a grand bathtub.  She also has more than a smattering of good sense.
Berta Ojea is Dolores, stout and simple, devout and sweet-natured.
Concha Galán is Pilar, abused by her husband, leading M. Joubert to take extraordinary steps. 
Lola Dueñas is Carmen, an angry yet warm Communist — and you can’t blame her for the latter.
Annie Mercier is dour and rather scary as the deep-voiced, mean-spirited landlady, Mme. Triboulet.

These actresses are scrumptious, simple, clear, inhabiting their characters with a lust for life, embodying women who are forthright while they appear submissive.  They’re alive, and glad of it.  So are we.
Natalie Verbekeas Maria.  (C) Vendome Production
A delightful aspect of this story is that not only is Mr. Joubert transformed by these 6th floor friends — and love.  His wife Suzanne is as well, once she realizes he’s not having an affair with the man-eating widow client, but rather living a different sort of life with these new friends.  She recognizes the warmth he’s drawn to and tries to find it in herself.  It’s almost conceivable that the two obnoxious Joubert sons might eventually learn something from their parents’ discoveries. 

Writer/Director Philippe Le Guay does not make the smallest misstep.  His script with Jérôme Tonnerre is lively and good-hearted.  In another film, the rich widow in the red dress would be a black widow, having had three husbands and not missing a one.  Here Audrey Fleurot gives a brash performance that somehow makes us believe the widow’s a person, not a caricature at all.
Suzanne and Jean-Louis Joubert and the Man-Eating Widow.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu provides soft lighting, keeping the frames warm even when some of Jean-Louis’ behavior might make us uneasy.  Between Mr. Larrieu, though, and the innocent and beneficent Monsieur Joubert created by Mr. Luchini, what would be creepy from another actor is almost cute and certainly harmless here.

This film does not try to break ground, to change minds, to do anything more than perhaps encourage some reflection on the world, on ourselves.  With a glass of wine and a nice biscuit.  Or maybe some paella.  In a traditional romantic comedy, a man rescues a woman.  “The Women on the Sixth Floor” together save the man.  This film is a latté, it’s rich and frothy and light as a feather.  It’s a guiltless pleasure, so go indulge.

~ Molly Matera, signing off but not logging off – I must download “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

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