Arts, Culture & Media

French Filmmaker's Homage to Spanish Housekeepers

By Adeline Sire

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In Paris, elegant apartment buildings from the 19th century typically have six floors.

The top floor – right below the roof – used to be the maids' quarters.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, many of those maids came from Spain.

So, when director Philippe Le Guay set out to make a movie as an homage to those women, he called it "The Women on the Sixth floor."

Many Spaniards had fled the civil war and the regime of General Francisco Franco in the late 1930s. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they emigrated for economic reasons.

Filmmaker Le Guay said because Spain was still under Franco, there was very little employment in the country, especially for women.

As a result, thousands of women went to France to work as nannies and maids.

The film "The Women on the Sixth floor" follows a young job-seeker named Maria (Natalia Verbeke).

Maria travels to Paris by bus, and is greeted upon arrival by her aunt, Concepcion.

The aunt is none other than Spanish screen actress Carmen Maura, who starred in many of Pedro Almodovar's films. Maria joins the ranks of dozens of other Spanish maids working in Paris.

And Film director Philippe Le Guay says these women transformed the stiff, upper-class neighborhoods where they lived and worked.

"All these Spanish women were there in the streets of Paris, "he said. "They would go buy bread and meat at the butchers', and suddenly, all these bourgeois women would be in line with those women. And they would all be speaking loudly in Spanish, and suddenly, the streets looked different. And the temperature (would) rise suddenly thanks to the Spanish women."

Or at least, that's how he remembers it. He grew up in one of those upper class neighborhoods. And his family had a Spanish nanny. Her name was Lourdes, and she arrived when Le Guay was three years old.

"She would dress me all in white," he said. "And she would teach me Spanish prayers and Spanish songs. And, as I was beginning to learn French, my French was mixed up with Spanish."

In the film, Maria's employer is Jean-Louis Joubert, (Fabrice Lucchini), a stockbroker.

When Maria meets him for the first time in the Joubert's kitchen, he tells her her job hinges on how well she can prepare a soft-boiled egg.

But the stuck-up stockbroker soon sings a different tune, one involving guitar playing and clapping. Joubert is invited to join several of the women's gatherings and he finds himself drawn to the fiery energy of Maria and the women of the sixth floor.

This Spanish festive spirit comes, of course, with dance, lace shawls, ornate fans, and later on, loud paella dinners, with the ever smiling, hard working, hired help.

The film doesn't miss any clichés. In fact, actress Carmen Maura – who lives in Madrid and Paris – pressed Le Guay about it.

Speaking in French, she said "One day I had a word with him about it. I told him: 'I wonder if you're not reinforcing old stereotypes of Spain here,' and he replied that the film was his personal vision. A Spanish filmmaker would probably not do a film like that, but in France, the film was a great success."

In the end, Maura says she decided to take the role of Concepcion the maid because she thought Le Guay's characters were smart and charming. And because Le Guay showed passion for Spain.

"I saw in him a French man who really loved Spain and wanted to make a film that was really like a love letter to Spain, " she said. "And I think the film shows the country in a good light."

The film also has the requisite, improbable romance between the young maid and her employer. But this is where fiction probably helped filmmaker Le Guay get over his childhood heartache.

It had to do with his own nanny, Lourdes.

"She stayed at home for three years," he said, "and then she went back to Spain to get married. And maybe it's the first woman I ever loved, and she left, and maybe it's the secret reason why I made this film.

Spaniards have not weighed on the film yet, but they will get their chance in December when the film is released in Spain.
"The Women on the Sixth floor" opens today in New York and Los Angeles.