Director Philippe Le Guay's gentle seriocomic fable, The Women on the 6th Floor, stars Fabrice Luchini as Jean-Louis, a middle-aged stockbroker, husband, and father, living in Paris circa 1962. When the family's temperamental maid bolts, Jean-Louis and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) opt to hire a beautiful young immigrant named Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who resides on the sixth floor of their building with a coterie of Spanish women. Bit by bit, Jean-Louis becomes swept up in the uninhibited lives of these women, and he is magnetically drawn to Maria and everything she represents. Suddenly, his tried-and-true French family life begins to lose its appeal.
In sum, this same tale has been told much more effectively elsewhere. Apart from the romance subplot, it contains themes similar to those of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, with echoes of Babette's Feast -- two other pictures about spiritual liberation via exposure to foreign cultures. But those earlier films benefitted immeasurably from a narrative zest -- a zip and a bounce sadly missing in this case. With The Women on the 6th Floor, the director strives for such liveliness, but the mood often feels leaden and mopey instead.
Part of the problem may be the fact that the director decided to include a romantic coupling between Maria and Jean-Louis. Theoretically, this could work, but it distracts (and detracts) from the main idea at the movie's core. It would be far more interesting for the picture to look at what might happen if this stuffy Gallic businessman had his mind, his senses, and his spirit opened up through an introduction to an earthier worldview, without a clichéd love story to lead the way. Instead, the picture reverts to the formulaic pap of an unlikely cross-cultural romance, and it becomes merely another comedy about a midlife crisis. Another problem is that while Luchini initially seems appropriate for the part -- given the fact that he could play a repressed, over-the-hill Frenchman blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back -- he never quite projects the concomitant freedom that we associate with Jean-Louis's metamorphosis. Even at the end, the character seems so uptight, self-conscious, and awkward that we keep looking for signs of liberation and coming up empty-handed. The resolution of the character's troubled marriage is also poorly handled. Actually, the screenwriters don't bother to resolve it at all; perhaps out of fear of entering emotionally heavy territory, it just trails off without a satisfying or credible ending.
To be certain, not everything here is a loss. There are some unexpectedly bright little touches, such as two great satirical performances by Camille Gigot and Jean-Charles Deval as Bertrand and Olivier, Jean-Louis's conceited sons, who come across as exaggerations of the most-extreme criticisms hailed at the French national character over the years. And, as indicated, the themes themselves have merit. But to succeed, they need a lightness of touch almost entirely absent here.