The labours of a young woman working at an upscale Mexico City hotel are meticulously detailed in The Chambermaid, a tightly-wound depiction of working-class life that mixes the surreal with the banal to quietly devastating effect. A pointed exploration of the Mexican class divide, female solidarity and the indomitable power of the human spirit, it pays tribute to all people endlessly toiling away in low-paid and degrading work.
Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is only 24-years old, but there is already a certain sense of weary resignation in her eyes. Therefore, she isn’t too surprised, in the film’s opening scene, when she stumbles upon a patron sleeping on the floor. Suddenly revealed after a long-held take of Eve cleaning up his room, the punchline-manner of his appearance is a bizarre intrusion into a documentary-like scene. This is emblematic of the film as a whole, which continuously balances elements of the strange with the prosaic, allowing both elements to co-exist within its central protagonist.
The film is not so much about what is being shown, but how it is shown, allowing multiple meanings to exist within the same frame. As suggested, the nature of Eva’s work takes centre stage, the film treating us to endless shots of her ruffling pillows, folding toilet paper and cleaning baths. The slow, Chantal Akerman-like approach to depicting traditionally feminine activities is held together by the poised central performance of Gabriela Cartol, able to allow unspoken frustration to seep through even the most routine of movements. Underneath this dull repetition is a highly spirited character, quietly waiting to burst forth.
She has ambition. She takes classes, training for her high school diploma (notably, her teacher gives her John Livingston Seagull to read). One day things perk up when she has a chance to get a better job within the hotel, suitably symbolised by the higher floor she could be working on. This is something she needs, providing for her son and husband, who we never see off-screen but she works extremely long hours to support. This is something she cannot share with others — not the rich Argentinean woman who requires her time five minutes a day to watch her child while she showers, and definitely not her colleagues, who are eyeing the exact same opportunities as her.
Crucially, no shot is taken from outside of the hotel. It is a hermetically sealed kingdom with everything capitalism thinks she could possibly need: a cafeteria to eat in and spare beds to sleep in if she misses her last bus. Director Lila Avilés stresses this stifling world through smart camera choices, such as using the widescreen ratio to cut off the heads of rich paying guests, and making Eve’s only sexual interest a window cleaner, crucially and humorously seen on the other side of the glass. Therefore every shot, many taken through mirrors, becomes laced with double-meaning; long static shots forcing the audience to imagine the types of conditions she lives in back home. The Chambermaid really is a true masterclass in implication: by only depicting her within the context of labour, Avilés shows there is much more to life than work.
DIRECTOR: Lila Avilés
STARS: Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez
RUNTIME: 102 minutes