It’s Paris in the 1960s. Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) lives a pleasant, placid life working for the brokerage firm his father founded, married to a pretty and prim wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), and living in a comfortable apartment, the same one he has lived in since he was a child. It seems his biggest bother is getting the housekeeper to serve his eggs at just the right soft boil. He’s barely aware of the women who use the stairs behind his back entrance to get to their cramped apartments on the sixth floor.
When their French maid abruptly quits, they hire a young Spanish maid, Maria, played by fresh-faced Natalia Verbeke, who has just moved in with her aunt to the servant’s quarters upstairs. Jean-Louis has no idea that his routine life is about to turn upside down.
“The Women on the 6th Floor” (renamed from its original title “Service Entrance”) was a big hit with French audiences when it was released there earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. This frothy Gallic version of “Upstairs Downstairs” (although this time the servants are upstairs) is a delight from start to finish.
Director Philippe Le Guay co-wrote the screenplay from his own childhood memories of the family’s Spanish housemaid. The economic conditions in Spain under the Franco regime were forcing women to migrate north to find work. They were hard working (only needing time off to go to Mass), and fiercely communal. One of the film’s most joyous scenes is when Maria, overwhelmed by the mountain of housework on her first day, enlists her 6th Floor sisterhood to swoop in like maid superheroes to clean up the mess in a flash.
Jean-Louis is beguiled by Maria (who even cooks the perfect egg) and she introduces him to the lively and boisterous women living above him. Their nurturing yet carefree spirits and sheer joie de vivre make him realize how stuffy and sterile his bourgeois life has become. He begins to spend so much time with them that his neurotic wife is convinced he is having an affair with one of his socialite clients and kicks him out, which is fine with Jean-Louis as he is now free to untether himself from his stilted marriage and his two snobby boarding-school sons. He moves into a grubby tiny room upstairs among the women, who sing, dance and eat hearty meals. It’s the family he’s always longed for and he’s never been happier. As he puts it: “They’re alive and down here we’re dead!”
Veteran French actor Fabrice Luchini (recently seen in “Potiche”) with his malleable face has the deft touch to make Jean-Louis humorous with an appealing guileless charm, and the Spanish women (including the wonderful Spanish actress, Carmen Maura, as Maria’s aunt) fill the screen with a kaleidoscope of rich characters.
Let’s hope there’s no plans for a Hollywood remake, “The Women on the 6th Floor” is just the right flavorful souffle only the French can serve so well.
KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.