The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: The Women on the 6th Floor ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies (at least ever since Alan Bates said “Zorba, teach me to dance” to Anthony Quinn) it’s that the Noble Peasant has much wisdom to impart to the Uptight Bourgeoisie (particularly when it comes to learning the sirtaki).

The latest example is a French import (set in 1960s Paris) called The Women on the 6th Floor, an “upstairs/downstairs” social satire from director Phillipe Le Guay. In this case, the servile class occupies the uppermost floor of an apartment building owned by a staid middle-aged stockbroker named Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini). Jean-Louis, who inherited the property from his father, lives in a swanky downstairs apartment with his neurotic wife (Sandrine Kiberlane) and two spoiled teenage sons. After the family’s cranky long-time maid quits in a huff, he hires lovely Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who takes a room on the 6th floor, where she joins a small group of fellow female Spanish émigrés.

It’s obvious from the get-go that Jean-Louis is quite charmed by the young Maria, who invites him upstairs to meet her friends. Although he has lived in the building since infancy, Jean-Louis has somehow never managed to venture up the 6th floor. At least, that’s the only possible explanation for his “shock” when he discovers the relatively dismal living conditions endured by the nonetheless high-spirited coterie of Spanish maids who live in the servant’s quarters.

Well, mostly high-spirited. One maid gives him a cooler reception. “Oh, don’t mind her,” another one of the women cheerfully offers, “she’s a Communist” (with a heart of gold). At any rate, Jean-Louis is seized by a sudden urge to make amends for the disparity (yes, that fast) and, spurred by his newly found sense of altruism, begins making some capital improvements to the 6th floor. Now that his armor has been breached, it’s only a matter of time until he’s hanging out with the gals, laughing, breaking out the good vintage from his cellar, and discovering the savory delights of authentic homemade paella. You know-he’s leaning how to dance the sirtaki.

With a trope this hoary, you’d better have something substantive to back it up with, and luckily, Le Guay offers assured direction and well-coaxed performances from his entire cast. Luchini (a 40-year film veteran) brings just the right amount of warmth, poignancy and self-effacing humor to his portrayal of a man coming to grips with an unexpected winter passion. The film’s secret weapon is Verbeke, a voluptuous Argentine who brings an earthy sensuality to the screen that reminds me of the young Sonia Braga. While this film doesn’t break any ground, it may teach you a few new steps.

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