Film Review: ‘The Chambermaid’

Eve works as a maid at the upscale Hotel Presidente Intercontinental in Mexico City. Every room she enters is a chore — changing linens, scrubbing toilets and so on — but also a window into lives more luxurious than her own. Left alone with the affairs of the hotel’s rich guests, Eve indulges her curiosity. She doesn’t simply empty waste bins, but spreads out their contents and picks through what she finds there for clues as to how the other half lives. The irony, of course, is that director Lila Avilés has designed her debut feature, “The Chambermaid,” to give audiences the opposite opportunity, inviting us to step into the shoes of an invisible woman for two hours, and as such, her film is a rare and special thing.

In the real world, someone like Eve might be considered “common,” but as the protagonist of her own motion picture — imbued, by lead actress Gabriela Cartol, with the aching sense that something greater awaits — she’s extraordinarily uncommon. Unless you count Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which similarly brought outsiders into the private space of a lower-class domestic worker, and also screened at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, where Avilés’ relatively modest but comparably humane film debuted. Except that “Roma” seemed to judge its heroine’s worth in relation to the family she served (consider the movie’s poster, which depicts the group hug moments after Cleo saves one of her young charges from drowning), where “The Chambermaid” puts her at the center of a world she tends, but to which she has no access.

Minutely attuned as Avilés and co-writer Juan Carlos Marquéz are to aspects of gender, race and class, their understated, yet observational screenplay focuses on this servile young woman’s hopes and dreams, however modest, rather than those of her employers: Eve aspires to being promoted to the 42nd floor, with its exclusive executive suites; she yearns for a red dress left behind by a guest, patiently waiting several days before the unclaimed garment can be hers; and she makes time on her breaks to reach her daughter by phone, wishing for a situation that gave her more time with family at home (an abstract place we never see).

From the opening scene, in which Eve uncovers a surprise while restoring order to a room that looks like it was ransacked by wildebeests, Avilés makes clear the everyday unpleasantness that is her job, as well as the condescending and often inhuman way the customers (many of whom don’t even speak Spanish) treat the help. Some appear to be more considerate, such as the wealthy woman who floats the idea of poaching Eve from the hotel to come work as a nanny to her child. But Eve is easily forgotten. In fact, the dull moth gray color of the chambermaids’ uniforms makes it all the easier for guests to overlook them — and we might, too, if Avilés had amplified the white characters’ perspective.

But “The Chambermaid” takes place largely behind the scenes of the hotel, following Eve and her co-workers up the service elevator, into storage closets and amid the mountains of laundry in what appears to be the basement. In fact, Eve’s access to the hotel is so different from the guests’ that the film’s final shot — like watching an innocent man escape from Alcatraz — feels so thrilling simply in the way the world must at last view her as an equal among the other humans in frame. Still, Avilés approaches Eve with that same sense of dignity throughout, reminiscent of the respect Pascale Ferran showed a hotel cleaning woman in her poem-like film “Bird People.”

Although guided primarily by her imagination, the self-taught director — who experimented with several award-winning short films before undertaking her first feature — met and researched the chambermaids working at the Intercontinental during the long pre-production and rehearsal phases. For the most prominent roles, Avilés resisted the recent trend in Latin American cinema of using amateur performers, instead casting a professional actress as Eve. Even then, Cartol proves so unmannered, so utterly believable at times, one could be forgiven for assuming that Avilés had found her working at the Intercontinental (which happened with several of the minor supporting parts).

The film may feel minimalist to those accustomed to watching mighty heroes save the world and whatnot, but in fact, there’s an intricacy to all the seemingly mundane details Avilés opts to include, and a photographic instinct behind the way she composes each scene. Sitcoms and studio movies have established a comfortable assortment of angles for covering spaces like the hotel rooms and hallways where “The Chambermaid” takes place, and yet, Avilés and DP Carlos Rossini (a vital collaborator in the film’s design) render these areas somewhat alien. At times, we see them from Eve’s perspective, as in low angles that seem to decapitate other characters, while allowing her to retrieve lost objects from under the bed. In other cases, she could be a creature in a posh terrarium, an amateur anthropologist snooping through strangers’ things in their absence, on whom we’re allowed to spy.

There exists an unspoken contract between hotel guests and the anonymous maids who tidy their affairs: These women are expected to clean, but not to cross the line, as Eve often does, albeit innocuously. Avilés was inspired by Sophie Calle’s book “L’Hôtel,” in which the artist photographed the personal effects of hotel guests without their knowledge. “The Chambermaid” is comparably intrigued by those who stay at the Intercontinental, but more importantly, it depicts the dynamic between the staff, as in Eve’s budding friendship with a co-worker named Minitoy (Teresa Sánchez), or the vaguely romantic glances exchanged with a bashful window-washer, forever separated by glass. The latter is one of the few people who actually seems to see Eve. Thanks to this incredibly patient and empathetic film, we do, too — a lesson likely to transform the way we perceive an entire category of our fellow humans going forward.

Film Review: 'The Chambermaid'

Reviewed at AFI Fest, Nov. 10, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Platform.) Running time: 102 MIN. (Original title: “La camarista”)

Production:(Mexico) A Kino Lorber release of a Limerencia, Foprocine, Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, Bad Boy Billy Prod., La Panda Prods., Bambú Audiovisual production. Producers: Lila Avilés, Tatiana Graullera. Executive prodcuers: Jana Diaz-Juhl, Pau Brunet, Axel Shalson, Carlos F. Rossini, Emiliano Altuna.

Crew:Director: Lila Avilés. Screenplay: Avilés, Juan Carlos Marquéz. Camera (color, widescreen): Carlos F. Rossini. Editor: Omar Guzmán.

With:Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez. (Spanish, English dialogue)

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