Watching Fabrice Luchini fall in love, bemused, is a comforting pleasure. He’s something of a bourgeois older-Prince: a romantic heart, papered-over by routine, cynicism and gentle cowardice.
It’s early-sixties Paris and stock-broker Jean-Louis (Luchini) and his socialite wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) live in a wealthy apartment building, the kind where domestic staff are housed in tiny purpose-built ‘maids’ rooms’ in the attic. He spends days in a stuffy office, just like his father used to do, while she buys cakes, dashes to dressmaker and plays Bridge. Jean-Louis and Suzanne aren’t bored (it’s the only life they’ve known); they’re constrained.
One day, after a dispute, their French-maid walks out. The apartment falls into disarray. Suzanne has little interest in domestic work and she is advised to hire a Spanish maid: they’re cheap, hardworking and because of Franco’s regime, Paris is full of them.
A few days later, Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is hired. She’s exceptionally pretty, charming and good at her job. Her employees are impressed. When Maria demonstrates she can make the perfect soft-boiled egg for Jean-Louis, his shell cracks, and he views her as motherly and appealing.
Maria opens a door in Jean-Louis’ imagination and sees the world anew. The door isn’t large and ornate, opening onto a Paris street-view; instead it’s a small kitchen door, located opposite the stove that boils his egg. It leads onto a winding staircase, which twists up to the sixth floor, where the maids’ live.
Jean-Louis gets to know the buildings’ Spanish maids. He sees their squalid living conditions and is impressed by their energy, song and stories. Jean-Louis hires a plumber to fix the blocked toilet; his heart opens and he falls for Maria.
Director Philippe Le Guay writes and directs with broad strokes. He hits the notes with precision, but with little subtlety. This doesn’t matter, as nuance and close observation is bountifully supplied by supreme performances. Maria’s fellow maids are a gaggle of passion and song, and Jean-Louis and Suzanne’s two sons are hilarious bourgeois imps, reminiscent of Lucien’s two older brothers in Louis Malle’s Le Souffle au Coeur (The Heart Murmur).
Audrey Fleurot, in full compelling-bloom, plays the rich man-eater Bettina de Brossolette. It is Bettina with whom Suzanne thinks Jean-Louis is having an affair. Jean-Louis’ face relaxes as he starts to take an interest in all things passionate and Spanish. It doesn’t cross Suzanne’s mind that her husband is compelled by Maria (that would require thinking differently, and contradicting the opinions of her Bridge-playing friends).
No, Bettina has a reputation and Jean-Louis is her stock-broker. Therefore, according to Suzanne, she must be his mistress. Little does she know her husband is eating Paella and feeling youthful on the 6th floor.
Kiberlain is an elegant, understated actress. She is genuine and beautifully ordinary, and plays Suzanne with the erect carriage of a peg-doll, while her eyes exude the controlled logic of a well-written shopping list. This is not a criticism. Kiberlain’s controlled torment is magnetic; it comes from a hidden, far-reaching land of malaise.
It is Luchini portrayal of Jean-Louis’ slow realisation that he is in love that makes Les Femmes du 6e Étage worth watching. He is reigned-in, but on fire: a repressed, passionate man who wears a look of surprise at what is happening to him, and how he is changing. The maids on the 6th floor, and the beautiful Maria, give Jean-Louis’ life warmth and meaning, taking him beyond the boundaries of a life that was no doubt prescribed when he was a small boy at boarding school.
Director: Philippe Le Guay (2010)