Paris, 1962: Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini
) and his wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain
), have white-people problems, namely the family housekeeper. She’s a nasty old French bitch who won’t let Suzanne clear out her dead mother-in-law’s room.
So they fire the old woman (or she quits, depending on your point of view) and hire a young, beautiful Spaniard to fix their quandaries: Jean-Louis gets his perfectly boiled egg; Suzanne’s bath is perfectly drawn; everyone learns something, and it isn’t too painful. Finally, all the characters get what they want, mostly.
The Women on the 6th Floor
is one of those movies in which the filmmakers want it both ways: The people downstairs (Jean-Louis and his family) get life lessons from the maids upstairs, while also taking advantage of them. It’s a little callous, but after all, living as cheap labor to wealthy French people is better than being shot by Franco
The film would be all kinds of shocking if the filmmakers didn’t make everything so darn cute. The movie is a well-acted, inoffensive trifle—if you don’t think about it much—and it looks great, too.
María (Natalia Verbeke
) is a young, attractive, French-speaking Spanish maid replacing the old fuddy-duddy. In
addition to being pretty, she’s also pretty tough, negotiating, for instance, a 60 percent raise from the previous housekeeper’s salary. Without meaning to, she also negotiates her way into Jean-Louis’ heart.
One welcome, but typically French, twist comes when Jean-Louis falls for all the maids, including María’s aunt, the devout maid, the man-hungry maid and the Communist maid whose family was killed by Franco’s soldiers. As men typically do in affairs, he actually falls in love with their free lifestyles more than the women themselves.
But watching Jean-Louis wake up and focus his thousand-yard stare on the women who live upstairs charms us. Luchini’s Jean-Louis has the kind of face that makes you think he really believes in what he’s doing, such as when, for example, he calls a plumber at 9 pm to fix the overflowing toilet on the sixth floor. He doesn’t do it out of guilt; he does it because working people deserve a working toilet, damn it.
Eventually, Jean-Louis ends up living on the sixth floor, after he and his wife have one of those misunderstandings that only happen in movies. The fact that he takes great pleasure in living up there—the camaraderie with the women, the freedom to prepare his own food (sardines!), sharing the toilet, which is literally a hole in the ground—is enough to make us forget the whole thing is absurd.
But absurdity is OK. This is a French comedy. It has a particular lightness that good French comedies wield like a knife—which isn’t to say that the film is particularly funny, but the filmmakers take lightness seriously enough to make you forget it’s not so funny.
The story threads wrap up abruptly and somewhat ill-fittingly, especially Suzanne’s situation. Her character deserves a better arc than she’s given. But the ending, like everything that came before it, is light and airy enough for you not to care much.