"A harmlessly enjoyable little number, telling a charming romantic tale of two people that supposedly shouldn't be together..."
Have you ever wondered what would happen if Pedro Almodóvar created an Upstairs Downstairs spin-off? No? Well anyway, if you had then Philippe Le Guay's The Women on the 6th Floor is your answer; a politically charged romantic comedy, studying the social-class system and xenophobia against Spanish maids in 1960's Paris.
Set in an apartment block in the French capital, we follow the contrasting lives of a conservative, wealthy couple Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) and Suzanne Joubert (Sandrine Kiberlain), and the Spanish maids, living upstairs on the 6th floor. Having reluctantly fired his previous maid, Jean-Louis is on the look-out for a new house servant, and fortunately for him, along comes the beautiful and hard-working María (Natalia Verbeke).
Jean-Louis, uptight and affluent, is finding life somewhat monotonous, yet as he gets closer to María he discovers a world unbeknown to him, as she introduces him to the 6th floor and the other maids residing there. Appalled by the conditions in which they live, Jean-Louis, much to the displeasure of his class-conscious wife and bullheaded sons, starts to help and provide for the sweet-natured servants. As a result Jean-Louis grows closer to the maids, as their strong spirit revitalises him. Suddenly class has no relevance and Jean-Louis is left to question his own marriage, particularly as his feelings towards María grow stronger.
Despite maintaining a somewhat casual sentiment to it throughout, The Women on the 6th Floor works as a perceptive study of social-class and discrimination in a society I had previously known little about. Such harsh themes work well against a charming, humorous background, as Le Guay manages to find a balance between the political aspect to the film and a hugely endearing and romantic narrative between Jean-Louis and María.
Le Guay cleverly begins by presenting the Spanish maids seeking acceptance within a higher class society, yet the film completely turns on its head as eventually it's Jean-Louis who then seeks the blessing of the lower-class workers. However, Jean-Louis still represents the "enemy" as such, as we are encouraged to take the side of the Spanish maids, the underdogs. Having said that, the most annoying character within the film is Carmen (Lola Dueňas), the more unwilling of the maids to accept Jean-Louis. He's just trying to be nice, dammit. I also felt that Le Guay could have further portrayed the bleak conditions of the Spanish maids early on, to maximise the hospitality and sincerity of Jean-Louis's actions later on.
Talking of Jean-Louis, the performance of Luchini is brilliant, as you simply can't help but want to cuddle him. He is just so lovely. In fact, one could argue that he is perhaps too nice, as it would have been beneficial to the role had we seen a darker, more ignorant side to him, to give his change of heart more magnitude. Verbeke is also excellent as María and the other stand-out performer is Carmen Maura, who was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress César award for her portrayal of maid Concepción Ramirez.
Finally, and just to clear this up - this film is not to be confused with The Woman in the Fifth, also set in Paris and released earlier this year - and although The Women on the 6th Floor may pose a numerical advantage, it doesn't come above the earlier feature in terms of quality. But it is still a harmlessly enjoyable little number, telling a charming romantic tale of two people that supposedly shouldn't be together.