The Chambermaid | La camarista (2018) **** Marrakech Film Festival 2018 Jury Prize | Interview
Dir: Lila Alviles | Cartol | Drama | Mexico | 90′
The Chambermaid plays the same thematic tune as two other festival winners this Summer: Golden Lion winner Roma and In A Distant Land which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. They highlight the isolated and lonely lives of ordinary working people, often migrants – in this case, a Mexican national whose job in the capital detaches her from her loved ones. There is a distinct chilly humour to this acutely observed feature debut from Mexican actress, filmmaker and opera director Lila Alviles. It follows the daily grind of a hotel worker in one of the Mexico City’s 5 star hotels. Cartol (La Tirisia) plays Eve with infinite grace and good humour – in one astonishing scene she stands for seemingly ages outside a lift during one of those awkward silences – catching a hotel guest’s eye several times with an expression that speaks volumes.
Pristinely executed in the zen-like interiors of this palace of interior design, the film pictures an upmarket public as they often are behind the closed door of their luxury suites: ill-mannered, demanding and crude. Bereft of their clothes they also take leave of their humanity – never mind their courtesy. This is social politics laid bare. The Chambermaid also examines the crafty interactions between the low-level workers themselves: the cunning soft sales techniques of her colleague in the laundry who is trying to supplement her low-paid job by selling hand cream and Tupperware. Or just trying to con her into sharing the latest fad – in this case, a gadget that delivers a shock to stimulate a feel-good rush of endorphin. Like a some ghastly face to face equivalent of FarmVille.
The Chambermaid is set in Mexico City’s Presidente Intercontinental. Eve is hard-working and diligent, but if she tries harder she’ll be allocated the stratospheric, newly refurbished 42nd floor with views to die for and even infinity pools. Pinning her hopes on the promotion, she improves her efficiency but to no avail. The only bonus here is in the lost property cupboard. In one of her rooms Eve has found a red dress and hopes to take it home, if the owner doesn’t claim it. But her gruelling schedule leaves no time to be with her child, let alone meet a partner. Outwardly timid, Eve shows her true colours in one scene involving a window cleaner who has taken a shine to her – along with his windows. Eve acknowledges him at a distance. Her reaction is plausible – a little light relief in a sea of sameness. But Alviles restrains herself and keeps this convincing.
Stunningly captured by Carlos Rossini’s creative camerawork, this sealed and sanitised world has a strange beauty. Loosely based on the book Hotel, by Sophie Calle, The Chambermaid is a contemplative but well-paced cinema verité piece that resonates with a powerful message from both sides of the equation. Eve’s humdrum existence is piqued by moments of insight that show her in a different light as she endure the indignities of her role with calm forbearance and subdued silence. The magnificent skyscapes are hers to see but never to enjoy in her closeted existence, locked in an eternal bubble with no respite, until the final scene where the ambient sounds of exotic birdsong replace the refrigerated buzz of musak and air-conditioning. MT
7 QUESTIONS FOR Lila Alviles – director, THE CHAMBERMAID
1: Some of the most interesting films are coming out of South America – your story is simple but has universal appeal
Alviles: When I’m asked to explain my film I realise its so simple and yet profound. The idea started 8 years ago when I saw book about a photographer who took photos of the things people had left behind in hotels. I’m originally from a theatre background so originally it was going to be a play, but then I decided to make a film – to show to the chambermaids working there what I had in mind – and in the end it turned into a feature film as I followed them through their daily lives for 6 years so I could understand their world.
2: The hotel feels like a microcosm of Mexico or even Mexico City with its different social make-up – the rich the poor, men and women behaving badly – behaving well.
Alviles: Yes, you’re absolutely right – I had so many stories to tell and yet I had no formal training, or diplomas in film – so in some ways I was an outsider. But I was determined to make the film and that’s how it all happened, and then we premiered in Toronto. Now, I’m taking on the festival circuit.
3. How did you finance the feature?
Alviles: The money came from my own savings but I was so passionate about my idea and so I went with it through intuition. Then my producer joined me and helped me finish the film and other producers joined us to promote it. And we filmed in 17 days and have no done 18 festivals.
4: The good thing about your film is that its minimal dialogue and meditative pacing make it an absorbing watch for all nationalities – viewers can sit back and just enjoy the visual story. And that’s its strength, apart from the intriguing narrative. Are you part of the filmmaking community in Mexico today – along with Alfonso Cuaron or Michel Franco?
Alviles: Yes but not for me! There’s a lot of great cinema in Mexico, I go twice a week to the cinema. Well it’s difficult because I’m the one who came out of nowhere with my film as I didn’t attend film school. But now my film has been shown in Morelia – Mexico’s leading film festival – and gradually it’s gaining an international platform. For the first time in my life my work speaks for what I am – whether I’m a woman or not.
5: The central actress Gabriela Cartol is very strong – how did you cast her?
Alviles: We had instant chemistry but I knew she was right for the part instantly. I often chose newcomers for my roles. But with Gabriela we have a trust that makes everything happen.
6: Yes she holds that scene outside the life with humour and with dignity – it’s my favourite scene is it yours?
Alviles: Yes it is – it’s almost like a documentary. I wanted so much to be a filmmaker and now I realise that this is my thing!
7: Do you have a project in the pipeline?
Alviles: Well I originally come from theatre and opera – and I love music. My next story actually comes from a personal experience and I started writing it before The Chambermaid. It’s a documentary.
Lila Alviles | THE CHAMBERMAID | MARRAKECH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018