At exactly what point does "The Women on the 6th Floor" film become the French art house equivalent of the steerage party sequence in "Titanic"? Is it early in on when, in a typical act of solidarity, the titular group of boisterous biddies converge on a single home to help a fellow maid make a good first impression, resulting in an upbeat musical cleaning montage set to "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini"? Or, is it much later, when the wealthy owner of the said house, now enlightened to how dreadful his live of buttoned-up privilege has been, moves to the sixth floor and falls wholeheartedly in with the impoverished troupe of misfits-by-design? I'm still not exactly sure, but I do know this - there's a lot to dislike about "Women on the 6th Floor", a disingenuous bit of fluff that thankfully isn't quite so toxic that it won't just blow away.
In a wealthy home in 1962 France, the maid of twenty-five years has quit in a fury, causing Mr. Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) the plum-like man of the house, to realize that the help are people, too. From this point, he develops a fascination not just for his replacement maid - the young and attractive (but not too attractive) Spanish maid Maria (Natalia Verbeke) -but for the roughhewn lifestyle of the cadre of foreign housekeepers (mostly Spanish) who occupy the sixth floor. The sixth floor is a closed world of perpetual clogged toilet squalor and busy over-crowded hallways, but doggonit it, the people there are like family
. They're alive
!! Not at all like the flatlined dull life of miserable wealth led by Joubert and his strangely frumpy wife. (At one gag-inducing point, the lady of the house actually announces this realization in glassy eyed wonder.) Every day, Joubert must have his breakfast egg hard-boiled just perfectly. If the egg is properly prepared, it is the highlight of his day. We're all supposed to be thinking: Oh, how rigidly bland! How could anyone possibly go on living this way??
Around the twelve-minute point, I knew for sure that I was about twenty-five years too young and the wrong gender for this movie. But even still, even if I were a woman of certain age, watching this as a member of the supposed target audience, I'd be all the more insulted. The film is all about the age-old class dichotomy of the upper class versus their servant class. Even in a comedy (which this is) (sort of), this struggle should never be portrayed as toothless. It's a fundamentally dishonest and flakey move that defies all reason for taking on the topic in the first place, in any capacity.
Not only that, the whole thing is a deadly bore. As the movie is revealed to be little more than a series of scenes in which Joubert overhears a sixth-floor centric problem, then fixes it by throwing money at it, "The Women on the 6th Floor" unintentionally becomes a prolonged "Saturday Night Live" sketch, hitting the same unlikely beat over and over and over
again, to the point of tired absurdity. Again and again, this fifty-plus rich guy comes checkbook in hand to the rescue of the servant class. I suppose we're supposed to view it as an even trade, since, you know, how could he ever truly repay them for the liberation that they've (inadvertently) led him too, and all that. But, seeing how a useless and unnecessary subplot involving Joubert's possessive crush on Maria is really the impetus for everything he does, how legitimate can any of this big-hearted change really be? In reality, if Joubert gets what he wants, he'd be cheating on his wife, a woman who's done nothing to earn such scorn other than wearing a series of ill-fitting frumpy dresses and drinking tea with snobby socialites. Yet the film paints Mr. Joubert as such a nice guy, how could he getting what he wants be anything other than right?
Thinking back to the film scene in France around the time this story takes place, I don't know exactly which lame French films that Godard, Truffaut, and their fellow French Wavers-to-be were lashing out at in print and later making revolutionary films in response to, but I can only imagine that it was this sort of thing. Shot like a second-rate modern episode of "Masterpiece Theater", and taking place in 1962 for no apparent reason other than to perhaps stir the nostalgia of the target audience, "The Women on the 6th Floor" is a lame duck of film, making tired and shallow proclamations about class in relation to inherent happiness and satisfaction of life. "Titanic" steerage party or not, after being on the sixth floor with these women for 106 minutes, you'll be ready to climb out onto the ledge and jump.
- Jim Tudor
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