New Year’s Eve & The Women on the 6th Floor

December 28, 2011
Women On The Sixth Floor
Women On The Sixth Floor

A ‘star vehicle’ is a film in which the script and story are less important than the presence of a fashionable actor. As a vehicle, New Year’s Eve might be compared to a bus with no brakes, hauling a whole gaggle of celebrities towards a cliff.

One expects these ‘feelgood’ films to feel bad, but not so bad that the following day one is still struggling to identify any redeeming features. The chief interest of such a movie is the question of how much the respective stars got paid to humiliate themselves. It would have to be substantial.

The formula is as follows: string together a series of disjointed little stories around one big public event. In 2009, director Garry Marshall gave us Valentine’s Day, this time he has progressed to New Year’s Eve. If he keeps going in this vein we can expect an appalling film for every American celebration. Stay tuned for George Washington’s Birthday.

It is tragic to see actors such as Robert De Niro and Hilary Swank mouthing the lamest, most gruesomely sentimental lines. Swank, as the woman in charge of the Times Square celebrations, has to deliver a cosy little homily to the multitudes about loving one another and living together in peace and harmony. Perhaps she should be invited to give the same speech at the next Tea Party convention. Republican hopeful, Rick Perry, would be reassured by the fact that of the numerous romantic couplings in this film there are no gays.

Watching people of all ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds being insufferably nice to each other, I began to understand the vogue for slasher movies. If ever a film was crying out for a homicidal maniac with a chain saw, it’s New Year’s Eve. The only problem would be where to start. After much reflection, I think it would have to be with Jon Bon Jovi’s character – Jensen, a rock star idolised by everyone except the girl he loves. This would have the added benefit of eliminating two dreadful songs.

Next up should be Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Kim, an over-protective single mother. Her acting is no worse than the rest, but following on from two Sex in the City movies, she deserves an extra speedy application of the chain saw.

After this, a random, comprehensive massacre would be the preferred policy. Not only would this be far more entertaining than the film as it stands, it would introduce an element of wish fulfillment and put a smile on everyone’s face. Now that’s a feelgood film!

The depressing truth about New Year’s Eve is that it is virtually impossible to spoof. Nothing could be more moronic and cynical than this piece of cinematic kitsch. The filmmakers seem to admit as much in the closing credits, which feature a sequence of fluffed lines and jokes. When Carla Gugino, playing a doctor, has to pretend to deliver a baby, she holds up two DVD cases of Valentine’s Day and declares that it’s twins. It’s the only time I laughed, overcome by a shaft of honesty amid the schlock.

Because this film is nothing but a series of short segments it is ideal for commercial TV – allowing for the risk that viewers might not be able to figure out where the ads end and the movie recommences. In fact there is no hard-and-fast separation because New Year’s Eve is saturated in conspicuous product placements. There is some small danger that viewers might feel they are having a superior cinematic experience with the commercials. If so, they can always turn the sound down when the movie comes back on. Unfortunately that option is not available at the cinema.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1Y2uXjsKjs

****

After 1 January it is a safe bet that New Year’s Eve will lose its topical appeal, at least until next year. Having suffered through such fare, I knew the next film I saw would feel like a masterpiece of the silver screen.

The Women on the 6th Floor may not be Les Enfants du Paradis but it is a well-made, entertaining movie with a serious subtext. Set in 1962, during the Presidency of Charles de Gaulle, the film examines the lives of the Spanish maids and domestics who kept house for the Parisian bourgeoisie. In Spain, Franco would remain supreme leader for another thirteen years. The scars of the civil war had not begun to heal, the country was impoverished, and many women became migrant workers as a way of earning a living for their families.

The family of director Philippe Le Guay had a Spanish housemaid, who provided the residual inspiration for this story. It is an idea that could be re-staged in any part of the world where the servant class is drawn overwhelmingly from one national group. Think, for instance, of the Filippina maids in Hong Kong.

When stockbroker Jean-Louis Joubert and his wife, Suzanne, are forced to part company with their elderly French housekeeper, they decide to follow their peers and get a Spanish replacement. Enter Maria, an attractive young woman fresh off the bus from Spain. Little by little, Jean-Louis will find himself drawn into the close-knit circle of Maria and the other Spanish maids who live on the sixth floor of the building. He begins by getting in a plumber to fix their shared toilet, and eventually becomes a neighbour when his wife throws him out of their apartment.

What begins as an act of good samaritanship becomes an immersion in a surrogate family that gives Jean-Louis all the joy and affection he never had from his own parents, or from the stiff and proper life he has led to this point.

It is a fairy tale, of course, but expertly crafted and acted. Fabrice Luchini is masterly in the role of Jean-Louis. Even without the dialogue, one could interpret every thought from his facial expressions. Suzanne, played by the willowy Sandrine Kiberlain, is not a stereotypical middle-class housewife. Hailing originally from the provinces, she tries to adopt those attitudes that come so naturally to her Parisian friends, but never quite succeeds.

Natalia Verbeke in the role of Maria is just as subtle and textured as the other lead characters. All three could have been walking clichés in the hands of a less skilful director and script-writer.

The Spanish ladies form a persistent chorus to the main story. Foremost among them is Carmen Maura, known for her appearances in Pedro Almodóvar’s movies. Her peers were drawn from the ranks of Spanish stage actresses, some of them hardly speaking a word of French. The constant babble in Spanish and pigeon French lends a naturalness to the story, while the cameraderie between the women doesn’t seem like an act at all.

The Women on the 6th Floor is a romantic comedy, but not of the laugh-out-loud variety. The fun lies in watching straight-laced Jean-Louis develop a taste for all things Spanish. At the beginning of the film his main passion is for a boiled egg that is neither too hard nor too soft. Before long he will be practising his Spanish, eating paella, and drinking wine with his newfound friends.

Maria is the catalyst, but Jean-Louis’s attraction to her is embedded within his general good will towards all the maids. The love interest, with its twinges of jealousy and lust, is only one part of his greater seduction. Jean-Louis may be aiming to win the heart of one woman, but his chief ambition is to throw off the accumulated cultural baggage of a life-time. When he moves into a tiny room on the sixth floor, he says that for the first time in his life he feels truly free.

Some reviewers have complained that the idea of a French stockbroker developing a fascination for a group of Spanish maids is hardly credible. This view seems to subscribe to Jacques Brel’s famous conception: “The bourgeois, they’re like pigs!” And indeed, this is exactly the way they appear in hundreds of French movies, including the devastating class portraits of Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel.

Philippe Le Guay, of bourgeois stock himself, has come out in defence of his class. In this movie he suggests that the frigidity of bourgeois self-consciousness masks a fund of common decency. It may be only a small fund, but it can’t be any less likely than Bunuel’s gallery of sadists and fetishists. Indeed, the greatest snob in this film is the French concierge, Madam Triboulet, who detests the Spaniards, even though she is a member of the same working class. There is nothing implausible about this piece of psychology.

As Jean-Louis gradually relinquishes the conventions of his class he carries the audience along with him. We can accept this tale because it says something we would like to believe: that human beings are all alike in their need for love and companionship, while class is no more than a brittle construct. It says this without having to spell it out in a ghastly speech, as in New Year’s Eve. This concept may be easier to accept in a film than in everyday life, but that’s one of the reasons we keep going to the movies.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L0DgnkbduI

Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 28, 2011

New Year’s Eve, USA. Rated , 118 minutes

The Women on the 6th Floor, France. Rated PG, 106 minutes

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