16 July 2010
In the opening sequence of this very dark Chilean comedy, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) eats her dinner at the kitchen table while the family eats theirs in the dining room. The four children are loud and rambunctious; being the maid for such a brood is clearly exhausting. Suddenly they quiet down and begin whispering, shuffling about, and ringing the little bell to summon Raquel back in — they’ve bought her a birthday cake and gifts, and they want to surprise her. With her mouth set in a hard line and her unforgiving maid’s uniform on, Raquel sits in the kitchen, intransigently holding her ground for a few more minutes, while the little bell continues to ring and the family calls out for her. Slowly she looks up, breaking the fourth wall to stare directly at the camera for the one and only time in Sebastián Silva’s film, “The Maid” (“La Nana”). This film is a brilliant look at the micro-politics of family life and household labor, all the more excruciating because we see it all through Raquel’s eyes. When she finishes eating her own birthday cake, we realize, she will have to clean up the mess.
Did I say family and labor? What I meant to say was “close psychological study of a family,” like a funny version of Harold Pinter. This may be a selfish, privileged family, but Raquel is no working-class heroine. She suffers from a set of neuroses as if she were a member of the family, neuroses all the more acute because she could always lose her job, despite having lived with them for nearly 20 years. She does everything for them — keeps their secrets, airs their sheets, brings Pilar and Mundo coffee in bed, and scrubs their floors with a pathological zeal — and over the years she has accrued deep resentments. She’ll do anything for her favorite middle child, Lucas, yet comes just short of pinching Camila, the imperious oldest daughter who feels no compunction in yelling, “You’re just the maid here!” She keeps a hidden stache of snacks to maintain a small degree of control over rewarding and punishing the children, revealing a stunted and childlike side of herself. If it weren’t so fascinating, Raquel’s quiet rage would be ugly and painful to watch — sort of like when she finds one of the children’s Halloween masks.
And then there are her headaches, which become so debilitating that the well-appointed and slightly guilt-ridden Pilar determines to hire a second maid to help — thereby fomenting a small domestic war. Raquel will have none of the new maid, a tidy Peruvian girl named Mercedes who quickly ingratiates herself with the children and tattles when Raquel tries to retaliate (which is often). As a result, Raquel’s world becomes even more claustrophobic. Trapped inside the walls of someone else’s home, locked in that black uniform with the white lace collar, and clouded with the noxious haze of cleaning products and daily routines, what is she to do with all this anger? When her beloved Lucas defends the new maid and asks Raquel, “Why are you being such a bitch?” we know that this is something she’s asked herself — yet her main response is to register his utter betrayal.
Considering that more and more Americans have domestic help (albeit usually not live-in help), isn’t it interesting that we don’t want our films to explore those workers’ inner lives? Our films resolutely refuse to allow real-life women workers to have three-dimensional personalities, much less discuss realistic relationships between employers and the women who wear those rubber gloves. I can think of two major narratives for addressing domestic labor in American film (and here I’m specifically avoiding Latin American and British film, which has long been open and interesting on the subject of the master-servant dynamic). First, there’s the narrative in which employer and employee discover that they both need each other, resulting in a touching mutual understanding — as in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” (cue violins and a few happy tears!). Second, and this typically takes place in TV movies about the Civil Rights era, maids are noble and sometimes spunky African American women who fight those battles inside the homes of wealthy, ignorant racists. The rest of the time maids are marginal characters with uncomplicated subjectivities. I don’t know about you, but this signals to me a deep cultural anxiety — and reminds me that I’m badly overdue to see Sergio Arau’s “A Day Without a Mexican.”