Natalia Verbeke in a scene from "The Women on the 6th Floor." (Strand Releasing )
The French have a knack for it. They've been making funny and agreeable movie farces for forever, and seeing "The Women on the 6th Floor" makes you hope they'll never stop.
While American mass-audience comedies stride fearlessly toward the scatological, the French continue to go the old-fashioned route. They rely on clever writing, brisk direction and, most of all, a long tradition of comic performance that values impeccable timing and flawless acting from top to bottom.
Though "Women" stars two of France's major talents, Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Kiberlain, it extends its reach to include half a dozen Spanish actresses, including Carmen Maura, the veteran of numerous Pedro Almodóvar films.
As written and directed by Philippe Le Guay, "Women" takes us back to the more formal Paris of 1962, where French maids lived in one-room chambres de bonne on the top floors of apartment buildings. Except in this era, the maids were as likely to be Spanish as French.
When "Women" begins, husband and wife Jean-Louis (Luchini) and Suzanne (Kiberlain) are perfectly content with their routine lives. He is a conservative stockbroker who runs a firm founded by his grandfather, and she is a high-strung socialite who is exhausted by days spent going to dressmakers and having lunch.
Unbeknown to them, half a dozen Spanish maids are living up on the sixth floor, coping with a single stopped-up toilet and a concierge who insists they never get mail from home because she'd rather not climb up that many stairs.
Destined to bridge this gap is a newcomer with a sunny disposition named María (Natalia Verbeke). She is joining her aunt Concepción (Maura) on the sixth floor and seeking work just at the moment that Jean-Louis and Suzanne are looking to hire someone, because their old maid Germaine is having very amusing problems adjusting to the death of Jean-Louis' mother.
Maria gets the job and wows Jean-Louis, something of a stuffy fussbudget, with her ability to cook an egg for precisely 31/2 minutes. A stickler for things being done the way they've always been done, Jean-Louis has no idea what he's getting into.
Little by little, circumstances make Jean-Louis take notice of all these Spanish women on the sixth floor. "They live above us and we know nothing about them," he marvels to Suzanne, who marvels in turn that a man who never cared about anything is now evincing concern for other human beings.
That, of course, is the whole point of what happens on the sixth floor. Almost against his will, this dull man becomes fascinated by the expressive exuberance of these women and finds that nothing can remain the same after he lets them into his life.
A star of French cinema since 1970's "Claire's Knee," Luchini (recently seen opposite Catherine Deneuve in "Potiche") has the perfect hang-dog demeanor for the role of the emotionally challenged Jean-Louis. And Kiberlain, considerably more empathetic in "Mademoiselle Chambon," gives herself to the part of the disconnected spouse with fine success.
The half-dozen Spanish actresses, some of whom don't speak French and learned their lines phonetically, are expert at adding life to the proceedings. While Maura is the rock and Verbeke provides the key emotional connection, Lola Dueñas is also excellent as the firebrand Communist Carmen, as is Berta Ojea as the religious Dolores.
One of the things that is most satisfying about "The Women on the 6th Floor" is how expertly even the smaller roles are filled. Michèle Gleizer as the maid Germaine, Annie Mercier as the concierge Madame Triboulet and Audrey Fleurot as the man-eating heiress Bettina de Brossolette are exactly as they should be, as is the entire film. You'll find nothing unexpected here, and that can be a pleasure.