It’s Paris, 1962. A wealthy stockbroker Jean-Louis Jouvert (Fabrice Luchini) lives a staid bourgeois existence with his perfectly-presented socialite wife (Sandrine Kiberlain). But when the family’s maid abandons them, into the residence comes Maria (Natalia Verbeke), a young, hardworking Spanish beauty. Through Maria, Jean-Louis’ eyes are opened to a new and enchanting world of music, mayhem, and the joie de vivre of the other Spanish servants on the sixth floor, and before long the balance of the household ruptures into wild, cross-cultural chaos.
The women on the sixth floor live atop a large rambling city town house in rough and tumble conditions. The floors below are occupied by the wealthy where life seems to run to order, but for these gals getting by is a daily drama – or occasionally a farce. All are maids to the bourgeoisie of Paris. The time is 1962 and de Gaulle’s France offers work, casual racism and bigotry and a culture whose customs are a smug confirmation that everything and everyone has a place and a ranking. From Spain, the women – amongst them the ebullient Concepción (Carmen Maura) and her pretty young niece María (Natalia Verbeke) – have escaped Franco’s fascism to live in a place where the toilet doesn’t work and there’s no hot water.
Into their lives comes a form of 'Saint’, Jean-Louis Joubert (Fabrice Luchini). His apartment, so oversized and spacious it seems to occupy the entire building (though I suspect it only manages to cover the fifth floor), is so beautifully appointed it may be auditioning as a replacement for Versailles. For generations, Jean-Louis’ family has run a prosperous investment firm; his pinched and tired face has the trace elements of tight deadlines and grave responsibilities. Married to Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), an attractive, bustling type from the provinces, whose life runs on a timetable of long-lunches and bridge with her equally vacuous gal-pals, Jean-Louis is dead – in his heart and soul – he just doesn’t know it. That is, until he discovers the sensuous, robust, whirl of passions that pre-occupy the lives of the women on the sixth floor.
When their long-time maid leaves in a big huff over an insult, Jean-Louis hires Maria (with the Mrs. approval of course). Pretty soon, Maria is dusting off not only the furniture but Jean-Louis’ long deferred sense of self. Maria, no dummy, sees her boss as a sad, staid little man, who is clearly looking for a way to connect to something. Infatuated with Maria, Jean-Louis is 'adopted’ by the women on the sixth floor; he becomes a willing janitor, fixer, 'father’, social worker and even their accountant. (In one of the film’s best scenes the women are inducted into the wonders of the stock market.) In return, the women inculcate Jean-Louis with Spanish cultural delights, which here seem to consist entirely of sangria, paella, a zest for life and lots of singing.
Directed by Philippe Le Guay, who co-wrote the script with Jerome Tonnere, Women rattles between glib ethnic clichés, coy class criticism and some pointed, even savage, social satire at the expense of French xenophobia and isolationism (but since this yarn is set safely in the past just how wounding its bards finally are is probably negligible).
What’s interesting about the film is its weirdly off-centre tone; you get the feeling that Le Guay sees this entire set up as a bit too cute. The sweetness is undercut with a tough look, or a harsh word. At one point, Maria tells Jean-Louis that no matter what he thinks is going on in his relationship with her and the women, he will always be "a boss".
Indeed for all of the film’s niceness Le Guay is careful to underscore the film’s Maria/Jean-Louis romantic subplot with disquiet; it’s not only the profound age difference, but there’s something queasily exploitative about it, too.
What gives the film its emotional punch is the acting. Luchini, with his hard-to-read stare, and stiff body, is a miracle of nuance; he grounds the film with his growing sense of longing. At about the half way point, I forgot about how silly and trite (and borderline offensive) the 'how the other half lives’ scenario actually is and I went willingly with the romantic fantasy. There’s a boldness about the film’s desire to charm the audience that’s sweet and crazy and sentimental all at once, like it’s daring you to be a grumpy resister.
Early on Le Guay stages a scene where Maria, overwhelmed with her workload enlists her pals in setting Jean-Louis’ messy apartment right. They attack the task with smiles and gusto all the while singing a long to the radio, which plays the hit, 'Itsy-Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini'. Le Guay stages it like a musical; all smooth cuts and bouncy rhythms, and you quickly forget how preposterous it is. It’s a smile moment, a great big glob of happiness that’s pure movie. That kind of feel-good filmmaking is hard to fight, just as long you don’t think about it.