'The Women on the Sixth Floor'

An inverted upstairs-downstairs comedy that's light on bite but heavy on laughs.

An inverted upstairs-downstairs comedy with a southern European twist, Philippe Le Guay’s “The Women on the Sixth Floor” is light on bite but heavy on laughs. Breezy, ’60s-set tale of an uptight, unhappily married Paris stockbroker, who rediscovers his joie de vivre after he gets to know the raucous Spanish maids who live upstairs, is filled to the brim with simpatico perfs from a cast headed by Fabrice Luchini and Carmen Maura. Commercial prospects in Gaul, where it bows Feb. 16, look solid, and the pic could work its simple but attractive charms in niche theatrical and ancillary elsewhere.

Besides being his third collaboration with helmer Le Guay (“The Cost of Living,” “L’annee Juliette”), pic also marks veteran actor Luchini’s second crowd-pleasing period comedy in less than a year, after “Potiche.” But unlike Francois Ozon’s B.O. hit, “Women” lacks any sharp sociopolitical commentary or contempo relevance beyond a generically empowering Spaniards/women/laborers do-it-better message.

Perfect Parisian bourgeois Jean-Louis (Luchini) lives in an apartment that’s been in the family for three generations. His wife, formerly provincial beauty Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain), feels she has to work extra-hard to keep up with her Parisian beau-monde friends, though her preteen boys are at a boarding school and all the housework is done by longtime domestic Germaine (Michele Gleizer), who unexpectedly quits in what is the pic’s first comic highlight.

A simple cut to a dirty pile of dishes explains the problem: Jean-Louis and Suzanne need a new maid, fast. Enter comely young flower Maria (Natalia Verbeke), the niece of matronly Spaniard Concepcion (Maura), who lives just one floor up from Jean-Louis’ family. Maria has come to join Concepion and her cackling bunch of compatriot friends, who all work as maids for tenants in the same building and occupy tiny rooms without running water on the sixth floor. However, nothing can get these vivacious women down as they iron, scrub and clean merrily all day to the tune of Dalida’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

Since the pic is set in 1962, the Parisians make much of the fact that the maids are Spanish rather than French — and one of them, Carmen (Lola Duenas), a commie to boot! But though the sunny film is often content to offer variations on national and class stereotypes, Le Guay and co-screenwriter Jerome Tonnere (“My Best Friend”) don’t ignore the historical reason why so many of these women fled from Spain: Franco’s regime of terror.

As Luchini’s stuck-up character warms to Maria and gets to know her aunt and colleagues, the plot drifts into autopilot, but the humor and perfs keep things lively and engaging. Highlights include Maria’s attempt to teach Jean-Louis Spanish words that start with the unpronounceable “jota” and any reaction shot of Luchini when he doesn’t understand the rattling Spanish that’s spoken in the room (though subtitles fail to indicate whenever a language switch is made).

When circumstances force Jean-Louis to move upstairs, Luchini is finally able to inject a dose of warmth and a hint of childhood tragedy into his character. Opposite him, Maura and Argentinean-born Verbeke are warm presences, while among the supporting cast, Berta Ojea is a standout as the devout Dolores.

Isabel Coixet’s regular d.p., Jean-Claude Larrieu, and Chilean-born composer Jorge Arriagada keep things bright and clean. Pic is referred to as “Service Entrance” in the press materials and catalogue, but onscreen title was “The Women on the Sixth Floor,” a direct translation of the French title.

The Women on the Sixth Floor

France

Production

An SND release of a Vendome Prod. presentation and production, in association with France 2 Cinema, SND, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema, France Televisions. (International sales: SND, Paris.) Produced by Philippe Rousselet, Etienne Comar. Directed by Philippe Le Guay. Screenplay, Le Guay, Jerome Tonerre.

Crew

Camera (color), Jean-Claude Larrieu; editor, Monica Coleman; music, Jorge Arriagada; production designer, Pierre-Francois Limbosch; costume designer, Christian Gasc; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Laurent Poirer. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 13, 2011. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Natalia Verbeke, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Berta Ojea, Nuria Sole, Concha Galan, Michele Gleizer. (French, Spanish dialogue)

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