Sunday, November 27, 2011

Women on the 6th Floor (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Women on the Sixth Floor

If you can imagine "The Help" mixed with "Midnight in Paris" you might come up with a film titled "The Women on the Sixth Floor." This is a light and breezy outing that takes place in 1962 Paris. The film has a carnival sense of fun. Even if it seems very familiar in its easy bouncing rhythm, it makes a good tonic for counteracting the dark and troubling magic of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" that is playing next door. 

The film centers on a Stock Exec M. Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) and his strained marriage with Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain). Joubert is a man shaded in grey Dijon mustard. He is passive and blank, like a figure out of a Tooker painting. In his role,  Luchini is uncannily like Peter Sellers in "Being There". Even his eyes look static in routine. Suzanne is skeletal and high-strung. She is all frenzy and bone. The thing she's most concerned with is keeping a schedule. There seems no hope for Joubert. Like a comic version of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, he seems intent on making himself small. That is until the whirling and free spirited Maria (Natalia Verbeke) is hired to cook and clean. Then, as if by some elixir, Joubert becomes interested in things and something alien like color comes into his face. 

Suzanne mirrors the character of Hilly in "The Help". She doesn't like Maria, but she tolerates her and urges her to use the children's bathroom whenever possible. Suzanne is very much an elitist debuttante, almost identical to her chiffon counterparts in Jackson Mississippi, half a world away.

In short order, Joubert's whole way of thinking is changed. He yearns for the voluptual vibrance of Spain to escape the mundane one dimension of Paris depicted as flat and grey. Suzanne is cold and bony while Maria is warm and fleshy. Joubert is in love with shapes as much as he is with Spanish culture, as symbolized by the perfect hard-boiled egg that Maria serves each morning. With one strum of the flamenco, Joubert is electric and animated, rather like Gil in "Midnight in Paris". Spain is everything. 

Vale! As you can imagine the vivacious maids begin to fall for Joubert who brings them to a board meeting, with hopes that they might learn the stock market and become CEOs. Suzanne grows suspicious.

Verbeke is remarkably like a young Penelope Cruz. She is sorcerer-eyed with a vixen's smile but there is nothing devious within her. Maria doesn't want to hurt Joubert. She is more a Gypsy sprite, a cat-like catalyst that inspires.

Rather than "Midnight in Paris, the film ultimately echoes "The Illusionist" for its emphasis on askew characters in the midst of a dull setting. The maids live on a dreary, paint-peeling sixth floor but what they lack in living space, they make up for in their ebullient personalities that literally color their environment, even when the toilet is clogged or the water doesn't work.

"The Women on the Sixth Floor" may prove to be visual tapas rather than a full meal, but the sight of Natalia Verbeke's face at the film's end is enough to make Alberto Benigni run for his camera and have Penelope Cruz heading to Chinchon for good.

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