The Chambermaid

 

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Mexico's Lila Avilés offers a first feature revealing her exceptional qualities. 

   Chambermaid, The

Sheet music: Gabriela Cartol

 

Here we have a feature debut from Mexico which to the great credit of its director and co-writer Lila Avilés prompts comparisons with last year's acclaimed Roma but is not overshadowed by that. As was the case in Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar winner, The Chambermaid puts screen centre a working class woman. This is the titular figure, Eve (Gabriela Cartol), who as a single mother works in an elegant Mexico City hotel seeking thereby to support her four-year-old son. The job is central to her life since it takes up most of her time and she has to rely on a helpful carer to look after the child. Indeed, while we learn of her poor home conditions and of her long journey to and from work, the film never leaves the setting of the hotel. Consequently, The Chambermaid focuses on Eve's efficient housekeeping and on her contact with fellow employees such as Miriam (Teresa Sánchez) and Tita (Marisa Villaruel) and with the guests whose rooms she cleans. The latter often ignore her presence and, if Romina (Agustina Quinzi) is an exception, that is largely because she seeks Eve's help in looking after her baby son.

 

As this description may suggest, The Chambermaid is a work of minimalist cinema. Eve's duties take up most of the screen time, but what we see speaks volumes about class in this society. While Romina may be friendly, the world that this visitor inhabits is miles away from that of Eve and in reality she is taking advantage of her. Similarly, there is no sentimentality in the film's portrayal of the contact between Eve and her fellow employees. However intimate with her, they too are ready to benefit from her and this can be a very competitive workplace. Outside of this we have the film's only sexual element when Eve makes up to a window cleaner working there: this aspect is unexpected and not, perhaps, quite as persuasive as the rest.

 

It appears that The Chambermaid grew out of a stage work put on by Avilés and that is surprising because this debut film is made with a sense of absolute precision in the imagery and that feels like a crucial factor. If the social concerns match those to be found in Roma, the style is quite different, but both films have a brilliant performance at their centre. Here Gabriela Cartol is magnetic. For anyone ready to accept the film's minimalistic mode, this is unquestionably a film to see. It is helped in this respect by the fact that most of us will in any case be intrigued to be shown the workings of a hotel seen from the point of view of the staff, something which in his own way the novelist Arnold Bennett latched on to in his popular last work, Imperial Palace, published in 1930.

 

I found myself thinking that The Chambermaid might well prove to be a masterpiece although my ultimate conclusion after a single viewing is that it falls just short of that.  In the case of Roma, I felt that late on it indulged in a scene that seemed too much of a familiar dramatic contrivance. The Chambermaid emphatically avoids that, but it possibly goes too far to the other extreme by eventually slowing up even more and underplaying its climax such as it is. However, the last shot of all is perfect. Given the style of the film, this reaction to its final scenes may be misplaced and in any case The Chambermaid is a remarkable debut, a work that is among the best of this year's foreign film releases to date. For the record, I actually prefer it to Roma.

 

Original title: La camarista.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez, Agustina Quinzi, Ramón Eduardo Sanabria Villalejo, José Manuel Ramírez Gloria, Marisa Villaruel.

 

Dir Lila Avilés, Pro Tatiana Graullera and Lila Avilés, Screenplay Lila Avilés and Juan Márquez, Ph Carlos F. Rossini, Art Dir Vika Fleitas, Ed Omar Guzmán, Costumes Nora Solís Zepeda.

 

Foprocine-Fondo/Limerencia/LA Panda/Bad Boy Billy/Bambu Audiovisual-New Wave Films.
102 mins. Mexico/USA. 2018. Rel: 26 July 2019. Cert. 15.