The French excel in two film genres in particular: Intimate dramas in which people wring their hands and smoke a lot of cigarettes, and pleasant baubles that wash over you like a summer breeze, delightful and inconsequential. The Women on the 6th Floor belongs to the latter group, even though director Philippe Le Guay makes a half-hearted attempt to give his fable some political subtexts. But this story — about a fastidious stockbroker named Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) in 1962 Paris whose wife (Sandrine Kiberlain) kicks him to the curb when she discovers he’s been carrying on with their new maid Maria (Natalia Verbeke) — is frothy to a fault.
Le Guay, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jerome Tonnerre, asks you to swallow an awful lot of guff in order to buy into the film’s central premise. With nowhere to go, Jean-Louis is forced to move in with the six maids (including Pedro Almodovar stock players Carmen Maura and Lola Duenas) who live on the sixth floor of the apartment building he owns. The women have all fled Spain and Franco’s dictatorship, and living with them slowly causes Jean-Louis to remove his class-colored blinders and recognize the servants as human beings.
“Here I have discovered a family!” Jean-Louis declares with wince-inducing earnestness. Reminiscent of The Help, but without any of the historical significance, The Women on the 6th Floor is about magical maids capable of changing the lives of people — if only they were treated with dignity and respect.
The actresses do what they can, but each of their characters is reduced to a type — the motherly one, the religious one, the brash and outspoken one — which coincidentally is exactly the sort of reductionism that the story rails against.
The Women on the 6th Floor isn’t offensive, and Luchini (who played Catherine Deneuve’s husband earlier this year in Potiche) leavens his character’s less-appealing qualities with a comic charm. Still, this is one French comedy that could have used a little more hand wringing and a little less whimsy.
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Natalia Verbeke, Sandrine Kiberlain, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas.
Director: Philippe Le Guay.
Screenwriters: Philippe Le Guay, Jerome Tonnerre.
Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Etienne Comar.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 104 minutes. In French and Spanish with English subtitles. Adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 4 in Miami-Dade only: South Beach.