The Women on the 6th Floor is a light French comedy that is pure bourgeois fantasy, but a genial fantasy nevertheless. Charming performances and the naivete of the characters go a long way toward smoothing over the characters’ perpetuation of class distinctions and patronizing attitudes. A labor revolution among immigrant workers is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind in this film, and it would feel rude to impose this perspective on these Sixties characters.
The film opens in Paris in 1962, in the Joubert apartment. Jean-Louis (Luchini), a stockbroker, was born in the fifth-floor apartment of the building and expects to eventually die there. He will pass it on to his son, as did his father and grandfather before him. Jean-Louis’ elegant but chilly wife Suzanne (Kiberlain), is in the process of redecorating the apartment following the death of her mother-in-law, and the radical change causes the departure (it’s hard to say whether she quits or is fired) of the family’s longtime maid Germaine (Gleizer). Encouraged by her society friends that it’s no longer chic to hire French maids, Suzanne hires the recently arrived young Spaniard María (Verbeke) to cook and clean for them – something the Jouberts are woefully inadequate at handling on their own.
As soon as the beautiful, young maid arrives in the Joubert home, the viewer senses exactly where this story is heading: toward the classic upstairs/downstairs affair between the boss and the domestic help. And, indeed, The Women on the 6th Floor heads in that direction, but not without an unusual twist. Infatuated though he is with María, Jean-Louis’ obsession turns toward all things Spanish. A half-dozen Spanish maids, including María, occupy the shabby rooms on the building’s sixth floor, and despite having lived there his entire life Jean-Louis had no idea of their presence. Shortly after his discovery, he pays to get their shared toilet repaired and bestows other kindnesses. Following a spat with his wife, Jean-Louis moves into a room in this sixth-floor garret and discovers he loves having a room of his own for the first time in his life. Jean-Louis would be considered a real mack daddy were not the circumstances of his situation so sweet. His relationship with the women reeks of paternalism, but it is also infused with true friendship and mutual regard.
Luchini is wonderfully understated as Jean-Louis, while Verbeke’s grace and smile indeed captivates. A coda set in 1965 seals the film’s status as a bourgeois fantasy, but fear not: Paris’ student and worker riots of 1968 are only a hair’s breadth away.