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Philippe Le Guay’sService Entrance(Les Femmes du 6ème étage), a sentimental Gallic version of Upstairs, Downstairs, is built for laughs so any historical or sociopolitical observations are purely incidental. The film, which sees a French bourgeois family circa 1962 encounter an upper floor full of Spanish maids, proved popular with French audiences since its release in February with nearly two million admissions. American art-house audiences usually enjoy French views of themselves, no matter how distorted, so Strand Releasing may benefit domestically as well.
Indeed one could imagine a Yank remake with Latino maids substituted for Spanish ones if Spanglishhadn’t more or less beaten such a remake to the punch. The ethnic differences would be more profound in such a remake — in the French film the maids are merely working-class Europeans who speak French with accents — although this film, like Spanglish, cheats somewhat by making its protagonist maid such a beauty as to humble a supermodel.
Veteran actor Fabrice Luchini(Potiche) continues his string of seemingly effortless portrayals of conservative businessmen here as Jean-Louis Joubert, the head of a brokerage firm and stuffy Parisian home, both handed down from father to son for generations. Indeed he grew up in the building that houses his luxurious flat while the wine cellar downstairs holds precious bottles and the 6th floor is devoted to servants for the various flats.
By 1962, servants are no longer coming from the west coast but rather Franco’s Spain where economic conditions are forcing women to migrate north for better paying jobs. When their French maid abruptly quits at the same fortuitous moment that Maria (Natalia Verbeke) joins her aunt Concepción (Carmen Maura) on the 6th floor, the Joubert family hires Maria on a trial basis.
Luchini doesn’t exactly sing “I’ve Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” but he might as well since you are meant to believe that, thanks to her, he not only discovers the lively, all-female commune up on the 6th, but how everything about his bourgeois life is wrong. Or as he puts it late in the movie, “they’re alive and down here we’re dead!” Ah, if life were only that simple.
Indeed he spends so much time on the 6th floor that his neurotic, pampered wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) grows convinced he is cheating on her with a glamorous socialite client. So she kicks him out.
Shorn of a loveless marriage that has produced two snobbish boarding-school brats, Jean-Louis is now free to discover the joys of life with an achingly beautiful Spanish maid as his guide. He moves into a 6th-floor cubbyhole and has never been happier.
Never mind that working-class slobs don’t have a key to a downstairs wine cellar or the income to support an impulse to drop out of the corporate rat race. This benign comedy — not exaggerated enough for farce nor pointed enough for real social commentary — just ambles cheerfully along Jean-Louis’ unlikely life trajectory without even a pause to consider the consequences of his actions.
All the actors pick up these moods and themes established in a somewhat mechanical screenplay by Le Guay and Jérôme Tonnerre. Luchini suggests a man who has just awakened from a 20-year snooze while Verbeke maintains the new maid’s dignity while being fully aware of the pitfalls of any intimacies with her patrón. The great Spanish actress Maura finds amusement in her character without falling into any demeaning national stereotypes.
One of the more pessimistic-minded maids (Lola Dueñas ) — naturally, she’s a commie — could have provided more serious themes about Franco’s Spain but the movie will have none of this. It even turns an antidote about a Civil War atrocity into a mildly comic moment.
venue: COL/COA (Strand Releasing)
A Vendome Production in association with France 2 Cinema, SND, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema, France Televisions
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas
Director: Philippe Le Guay
Screenwriters: Philippe Le Guay, Jérôme Tonnerre
Producer: Philippe Rousselet
Director of photography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Pierre-François Limbosch
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Costume designer: Christian Gasc
Editor: Monica Coleman
Sales: SND, Paris
Unrated, 106 minutes
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