"THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR" — ★★★ — Fabrice Luchini, Natalia Verbeke, Lola Dueñas, Sandrine Kiberlain, Carmen Maura, Berta Ojea; not rated but probable R (mature themes and brief nudity); in French and Spanish with English subtitles; Broadway
"The Women on the 6th Floor" is a well-crafted, charming French variant on "The Help."
It re-creates a period in the early 1960s when it was a status symbol for prosperous Parisians to employ Spanish maids. The film doesn't blaze adventurous new trails, but it dramatizes the stories of those underappreciated servants with an engaging mix of romance, droll humor and upstairs-downstairs social consciousness.
Jean-Louis (the superb character actor Fabrice Luchini) is a finicky middle-aged stockbroker who lives a pampered, monotonous life with his elitist wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain).
When Madame henpecks the family's elderly domestic into resigning, the apron goes to hyper-resourceful Maria (Natalia Verbeke, a young Jennifer Lopez lookalike). She moves to a cold-water bedroom on the sixth floor with the other Spanish housekeepers (including Pedro Almodovar regulars Carmen Maura and Lola Dueñas), who work for the apartment building's tenants.
The servants' quarters are unknown territory to most of their employers. Jean-Louis, charmed and fascinated by Maria's dignity and easygoing cheer, makes friendly overtures to all the women and soon becomes their welcome guest. The cultural stereotypes don't clash in the expectedly farcical manner. Instead, the inhibited boss thaws out thanks to the immigrants' down-to-earth warmth.
As Jean-Paul finds himself yearning for a vibrant proletarian lifestyle, Luchini makes his soul-searching a bittersweet emotional journey.
The stuffy milquetoast is on a quest for a meaningful relationship, but he's awkward to the last. His smiles of pleasure are furtive and tentative, as if he expects some headmaster's cane to come down on his shoulder for excessive exuberance.
One moment silently jealous over another man's attentions to Maria, shyly adoring the next, you feel the unresolved sexual tension that has Jean-Louis' hormones virtually ricocheting off the walls.
The other cast members are playing characters sketched more loosely, yet they're quite watchable. The long-limbed Kiberlain is a nightmare of neurosis and pretension, while Verbeke's doe-eyed charm makes her worth a cavalcade of complications and roadblocks.
The finale gives the culture clash a Cinderella ending that's pretty farfetched, but isn't that what frothy French fantasies are all about?
"The Women on the 6th Floor" is not rated but would probably receive and R for mature theme and brief nudity; running time: 106 minutes.