Cross-Cultural Discoveries, Up 'On The 6th Floor'

Trapped in a souring marriage, bourgeois Parisian Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini, right, with Sandrine Kiberlain) finds comfort in the company of a group of lively Spanish maids.

Trapped in a souring marriage, bourgeois Parisian Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini, right, with Sandrine Kiberlain) finds comfort in the company of a group of lively Spanish maids.

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The Women On The 6th Floor

  • Director: Philippe Le Guay
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Not rated; partial nudity, sexual situations

With: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain and Natalia Verbeke

In French and Spanish with English subtitles

In the Paris apartment building that's home to the Joubert family, climbing to the sixth floor doesn't simply offer a better view of the Eiffel Tower. The trip is literally consciousness-raising — it takes Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) from his bourgeois existence to the foreign land of his neighborhood's Spanish maids.

The Women on the 6th Floor is set in 1962, when Spaniards fled to France to escape not just poverty but also fascism. Yet this sharply written movie is not politically pointed. One of the maids, Carmen (Lola Duenas), is a communist who never misses a chance to denounce Franco. But the only person who will be liberated in director and co-scripter Philippe Le Guay's comedy is Jean-Louis, a stuffy stockbroker who is stuck in a joyless marriage.

The movie opens with deadpan, straight-to-the-camera monologues, in which the maids reveal their skepticism about French family life, culture and — especially — cuisine. Their simple candor contrasts the Jouberts' buttoned-up reserve. Jean-Louis, for example, can only express his existential unhappiness by griping about his perennially overcooked breakfast egg.

Not long ago, five Jouberts lived in the building, whose lower floors are elegant and utterly traditional. But the two boys have been packed off to boarding school, and Jean-Louis' mother has just died. Her passing doesn't seem to have disturbed anyone except the family's longtime maid, Germaine (Michele Gleizer). When prim, social-climbing Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) tries to claim her late mother-in-law's room, the resulting clash ends with Germaine's exit.

The arrival of Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is the catalyst for change — and for romance — in Jean-Louis's life. i

The arrival of Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is the catalyst for change — and for romance — in Jean-Louis's life.

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The arrival of Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is the catalyst for change — and for romance — in Jean-Louis's life.

The arrival of Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is the catalyst for change — and for romance — in Jean-Louis's life.

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That's where the movie begins its gentle drift toward fantasy. The Spanish maids are generally plump and matronly, but the Jouberts' need for domestic help just happens to coincide with the arrival of pretty young Maria (Natalia Verbeke). With aid from her aunt and the other maids, Maria convinces Suzanne that she's a champion housekeeper. Soon enough, Jean-Louis notices her other attributes. (Some of these are particularly obvious when she showers with the bathroom door ajar.)

Eventually, The Women on the 6th Floor becomes a romantic comedy, complete with a Hollywood-like insistence on the erotic compatibility of 50-something leading men and ingenues a generation younger. But the heart of the film's humor involves Jean-Louis' growing enthusiasm for all aspects of Iberian civilization — not just for Maria.

The previously uptight broker develops a taste for Spanish wine and music, and is energized by the earthy version of Catholicism practiced at the Spanish church the maids attend. He even tries to learn the language, in a verbal slapstick sequence that should gladden the heart of anyone who ever failed to acquire a proper French accent. And when relations with Suzanne cool from tepid to frosty, the ratty sixth floor begins to look like a refuge.

Luchini, who played the condescending patriarch in Potiche, is very experienced at this sort of thing. He conveys not just the foolish vanity of the middle-aged male, but also moments of genuine empathy, gallantry and hurt. That doesn't mean the happy ending is entirely earned, but flashes of wit and insight lift The Women on the 6th Floor several levels above its sitcom-y plot.

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