‘The Chambermaid’ Review: Amid Luxury, an Entrancing Drudgery06/25/2019
“The Chambermaid,” Lila Avilés’s quietly stunning debut feature, is a work of closely observed workplace realism, but at times it achieves the strangeness and intensity of science fiction. The camera never leaves the high-rise Mexico City hotel where the title character is employed, and in spite of spectacular views from the picture windows, the building can feel as claustrophobic and isolated as a space station drifting in a distant galaxy. A civilization unto itself, with a rigorous hierarchy and unspoken taboos, the hotel hums with mystery and menace. Even when nothing much is happening, there is the lurking sense that anything might.
The viewer shadows Eve (Gabriela Cartol) through her daily routines, though it isn’t entirely clear how many shifts we are witnessing. The job has a way of swallowing up time. As for Eve’s life outside of work, all we really know is that she has a 4-year-old son named Ruben. She periodically checks in with him and his caregiver, and sometimes a hint of loneliness or longing passes over her usually stoical features.
Unobtrusiveness, almost to the point of invisibility, is part of Eve’s skill set. She passes in and out of mostly empty rooms like a ghost, turning chaos into perfect order. Sometimes the rooms are already haunted, in ways that can be sinister, comical or even sweet. In the first scene, she finds a disoriented man buried in a pile of bedclothes on the floor. Another guest — “a VIP” according to Eve’s supervisor — hoards towels, toilet paper and shampoo, demanding “more amenities” on a regular basis. Someone else leaves a single ginkgo leaf on the pillow, which Eve takes as a tip and a token of unspoken affection.
Avilés, who adapted “The Chambermaid” from her own stage play, joins these episodes with a few slender, silvery narrative threads. The plot is a delicate and subtle thing, propelled by a handful of recurring questions. Will Eve win a promotion to a higher, more luxurious floor? Will she be allowed to take home a dress that was left behind by a client?
Those are bureaucratic matters, decided by authorities whose faces we don’t see. But there are other, more intimate dimensions to the story. Eve pursues a silent flirtation with a window washer and a guarded friendship with a boisterous fellow room-cleaner known as Minitoy (Teresa Sánchez). A guest from Argentina, stuck in a suite with a demanding baby, hires Eve for short-term, off-the-books child care. This woman’s friendliness both bridges the gulf in status between them and reveals how wide and deep it is.
Because of Eve’s job and the Mexico City setting, “The Chambermaid” might remind you of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” But the differences may be more significant than the similarities. Eve, unlike Cleo in Cuarón’s pointedly nostalgic film, is part of the 21st century capitalist economy, employed by a corporation rather than a family. What is striking about the hotel — what makes it unsettling and also intriguing — is its impersonality. Workers and guests move through the corridors and up and down the elevators in large numbers, anonymous particles in a complicated physics problem.
There is not a lot of domestic warmth here, but there are nonetheless moments of human connection, solidarity and even freedom. Empty rooms sometimes offer refuge — time and space to think, to read (“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in Eve’s case), to look out at the city and dream.
Avilés approaches Eve’s inner life with frank and tactful sympathy, and depicts her circumstances with unsentimental clarity. The film’s style is austere — there are few camera movements and no musical score — but its visual wit and emotional sensitivity lift it above the minimalist miserablism that drags down so many well-meaning films about modern workers. After you’ve seen it, the world looks different.
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.
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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott
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