Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 23, 2011 1:30 pm 
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Downstairs upstairs, 1962

Les Femmes du 6e étage (The Women on the Sixth Floor, AKA "Service Entrance") is a smooth and entertaining French bourgeois social comedy about a well-off financier's early 1960's awakening to working class earthiness. Fabrice Lucchini is, as always, impeccable as the financier. There is an endearing cast of women to play the Spanish maids Jean-Louis Joubert (Lucchini) befriends in his old grande-bourgeoise apartment building, and Sandrine Kiberlain is selfless and perfect as Suzanne, Jean-Louis' stiff provincial French wife. Unfortunately Philippe Le Guay and his co-author Jérôme Tonnerre don't entirely know what to do with this fine material and what this all adds up to finally is at once clichéd and inconclusive. Pleasure is to be had along the way, though.

Jean-Louis and his wife -- two teen sons being most of the time in boarding school -- live in a big flat that's been in the family for three generations, as has his investment firm. Lucchini is a milder version of very much the same kind of chauvinistic taskmaster he plays in the recent Potiche, another period film comedy but one with more political bite. Petty differences lead the family's live-in French maid Germaine (Michele Gleizer) to quit abruptly after twenty-five years of service. Jean-Louis and Suzanne learn Breton maids are no longer on offer. The new work force is Spanish. The attractive one they hire, Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is not only perfect; she introduces Jean-Louis to a bevy of other Spanish maids who live in tiny upstairs chambres de bonne on the titular sixth floor.

The central misunderstanding, once Jean-Louis becomes so enamored of the earthy warmth of this subculture, is that Suzanne thinks her husband is making love to one of the Parisian society ladies she thinks outmatch her (Audrey Fleurot) while he's actually sampling paella with Maria, Concepción, Carmen, Dolores, Teresa and Pilar at a flat outside the apartment building he's rented for one of the women because her husband was beating her. This contretemps torpedoes the marriage.

The sixth floor has no hot water at all and no running water in the little rooms, not even a functioning toilet. Nonetheless when Jean-Louis and Suzanne break up he goes to live in a vacant maid's room and is happy for the first time since childhood to have a room of his own.

The film pokes fun at the upper bourgeois lifestyle. It does not make light as it might of the rather stereotypical way in which Jean-Louis buys into earthy poor people, specifically Spanish ones. Sixth Floor is charming and easy on the eyes. It would be more effective if it was harsher with Jean-Louis' infatuation and if it gave Lucchini more of a chance to indulge his celebrated outrageousness and verbal brilliance. His role as Jean-Louis is as much too soft as his turn as Robert Pujol in Potiche is too harsh for his edgy, hysterical articulateness. His best recent film role remains that of the fancy lawyer son in last year's Les invités de mon père (Arnaud Paumelle ), and though some may like this quintessentially French actor as Beaumarchais or in Molière, he may really be best in contemporary comedies and his early appearances in the films of Éric Rohmer. One can pretty much tell how good a French film is by how well it uses Fabrice Lucchini. But Lucchini would not be as good as he is if he could not perform superbly in this role. His delicate awakening is charming to watch in this film.

As a nod to political awareness, one of the maids, Carmen (Lola Duenas), is a chain-smoking communist. While the others plan on saving money and moving back to Spain, Carmen vows never to do that till Franco's fascist regime ends, which of course means she has a considerable wait ahead of her.

Les Femmes du 6e étage opened in Paris February 16 2011 to generally favorable reviews: it is hard to find fault with this deft and entertaining romantic comedy with social, class overtones. It never errs, except fort its avoidance of rude awakenings and its irrelevant feel-good coda. Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented March 3-14, 2011 by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at three locations, the Walter Reade Theater, IFC Center, and BAMcinétek.

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