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Lila Avilés is the Mexican actor-turned-director who makes a terrifically assured feature debut with The Chambermaid: an eerily atmospheric, poignant, disquieting movie about 21st-century luxury and the invisible servant class required to maintain it. It is a film to put alongside Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, in that it’s about the emotional cost of submission.
Working with co-screenwriter Juan Carlos Marquéz, Avilés has adapted her own stage play, which was inspired by the 1981 photographic installation project The Hotel by artist Sophie Calle. Avilés elegantly conveys her fascination with the uncanny spaces of the modern hotel and, like Kubrick in The Shining, intuits that all hotels are haunted: they are public yet private. Each room, inscrutably blank and interchangeable, withholds the truth from the freshly checked-in guest about the many people that have been in there before, all their drama, their sadness, their excitements, their bodily fluids, have been erased; and the evidence of the incomer’s existence will in turn be expunged before the next customer. Of course, these rooms withhold another truth about the labourers who have vacated the scene; the maids will discreetly flee like spectres from the guests, vanishing into service elevators at their approach.
Gabriela Cartol plays Eve, a twentysomething chambermaid in an upscale Mexico City hotel – a virtual city-state of five-star opulence. As she moves from room to room in her overalls and hairnet, her working day requires her to be in constant, tactile contact with the kind of sumptuousness that she could never dream of in her own life: creamy duvets on beds the size of aircraft carriers, exquisite pillows, marbled granite in the bathroom.
Yet this proximity doesn’t excite envy or resentment, but a sort of numbed professional alienation, at least partly because there is simply no time to dwell on thoughts like these. The camera follows her as she leaves the grand areas of the guests and enters the scuzzier parts seen only by the staff, and Avilés allows us to register, almost as a skin abrasion, the drop in ambient pleasantness.
Eve is good at her job, and is encouraged by the manager to think of herself as worthy of promotion. Eve has sole responsibility for the entire 21st floor, and she is told that she might soon be promoted to the 42nd – a world of executive suites, with more pay, perks and prestige. She is also hankering for a lovely red dress left behind by a guest that she found and is entitled to keep if the guest doesn’t come back to claim it.
For the time being, however, Eve has a world of grindingly hard work. She has to leave her young son behind in the care of a neighbour, and has to get up even earlier in the morning than everyone else because she is also going to adult education classes.
So Avilés shows in various ways that Eve is not resigned to her existence but is imagining a future for herself, however hazily. But day by day she has the bizarre encounters with guests who cannot quite acknowledge her existence, particularly in the almost surreal opening scene. An observant Jew requires Eva to press the lift buttons, which he can’t do because it is the Sabbath. His polite request is just another symbolic aspect of the exotic pampering received by all the other guests.
The male guests, that is. Avilés shows how a certain female guest succeeds in subjugating Eve in other ways: more open and yet more subtle. She asks Eva to look after her baby while she is in the shower, a job that becomes a daily responsibility, while all the time bombarding her with girlish faux intimacies and finally offering to make her the family’s full-time nanny (a much better-paid job). Is this for real? Or simply a rich woman’s caprice?
Gradually, mysteriously, Eve’s unspoken discontent with her status in the hotel begins to manifest itself in various ways. She is in revolt against the almost erotic narcosis of the place and the expensive weightless perfection, which the reality of her existence is always liable to soil in some calamitous way. But does she in a Ballardian way want to leave a smear of her own reality across the sheen of the hotel room?
Cartol gives a persuasive performance as Eve, whose inner life is always simmering and bubbling under, while she must maintain a facial blankness as cloudless and pristine as the towels and sheets.
• The Chambermaid is released in the UK on 26 July.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Chambermaid review – a ghost in the luxurious lives of others | Drama films