Replacing a passive-agressive, quarrelsome maid isn’t easy, as Sebastián Silva’s comic gem La Nana shows. It’s class conflict gone the family way.
Family Fortunes by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
For Chilean director Sebastián Silva La Nana, is a very personal film. His second feature following La Vida Me Mata, the film was shot in 16 days at his parents’ home in Santiago (while they were away on holiday) and also stars his younger brother Agustin as Lucas. With the locations so fitting (Raquel’s quarters are where the Silvas’ maid once slept) and the story so intimate, it’s tempting to view the film as an autobiographical airing of his family’s dirty laundry. But with its focus firmly on Raquel, played by the caustically beguiling Catalina Saavedra, La Nana is much more about the maid than any awkward petit-bourgeois niceties.
Raquel may be the hired help, but she’s part of the family. Well, kind of. After 23 years of loyal service for one well-to-do Chilean family, she’s a domestic rock for overwhelmed mother Pilar, and a subject of curious fascination for Lucas. But for Mundo and Camila, she’s merely the object of indifference and contempt. There’s none of Jeanne Moreau’s coquette, but like Diary of a Chambermaid, there’s a convivial class conflict simmering beneath the domestic antics, just without the below-stairs goings-on. Instead, The Maid dances delicately around the blurred line of service, quickstepping between friendly intimacy and respectful distance.
The Maid opens on Raquel’s 41st birthday, summoned to the dining room by the patronisingly philanthropic Valdes family to be given gifts and sung to. It’s an embarrassing affair all round. For Raquel, because she hates being the centre of attention; much happier skulking in the scullery sidelines. And for the family an awkwardness – she may have lived with them since she was a teenager, but still no-one knows quite how to treat her, or quite where the line is between family and employer. Passing straight from adolescence to six-days-a-week service, Raquel has never had a chance to work out who she really is. Once a daughter, now a maid, but never a woman. And so whether the headache pills she persistently pops are a result of the chlorine fumes she inhales when scrubbing, or a more existential malaise, the Valdes family nevertheless decide to lighten her workload with a helping hand.
Her lonely stare to camera says it all – she’s misanthropic and confrontational. So when the new maids start to arrive, Raquel devises a string of devious stratagems to get them an untimely boot. Her favourite trick is to lock the new arrivals out of the house; a deliberate metaphor for her self-imposed isolation. She’s queen of her castle and doesn’t want to share the crumbs of affection the family tosses in her direction with anyone. It’s a vicarious life, but it’s hers and one she doggedly defends. And so the Valdes’ sacred cows are sacrificed to the downstairs power struggles; Sophia ousted for breaking Mundo’s painstakingly modelled miniature galleon and Mercedes blamed for Catalina’s missing moggy. This cat’s got claws.
Raquel may envy the Valdes family’s luxurious lifestyle and elegant refinement, even going so far as trying on Pilar’s clothes now and then, but she loves them like her own – changing Lucas’s nightly stained bedsheets with a smile. The family are capricious and condescending, picking her up when they’re feeling friendly and dropping her like a stone when they get bored. But they’re all the more believable for that. And it’s their laissez-faire intimacy that binds them together indissolubly – even when Catalina and Raquel have a slanging match over hoovering outside her bedroom or when Pilar finds a photo of her daughter with the face disturbingly scored out. They have their ups and downs, but still Raquel adores them like an orphan tabby. And they encourage her adoration, indifferent to her life beyond or her need for a family or love. It’s a circular rut of contentment and contempt, all exits firmly barred.
Cue Lucy, a resiliently cheerful and equally wily housemaid who refuses to be so easily bundled off. Despite the usual tactics of having the bathroom bleached down after her shower or being locked out, her cheeky, easygoing nature finds a chink in Raquel’s brusque armour. And besides, the Valdes family have no more tin gods to ransom. This one’s here to stay. Slowly, the two become friends and when Lucy invites Raquel to spend Christmas with her family, Raquel is inspired to reinvent herself, renewing contact with her mother and even giving sex a go. Raquel is fascinated with Lucy, a bare-breasted beacon of liberty leading the people. And this one-woman republic is slowly learning how to carve out an identity for herself. An imitation of life.
Sebastián Silva’s film is a very intimate portrait of class consciousness and petit-bourgeois awkwardness. But thanks to a stunning performance from Catalina Saavedra, it’s the maid’s story that takes centre stage. Headache-free and doing the unthinkable, she throws a send-off party for Lucy with multicoloured cake and balloons – a visual cacophony in contrast to the housemaid’s monochrome habit or the elegantly muted pastels of the Valdes family. Raquel’s sudden lust for life is simultaneously profound and pathetic. Her clothes and her evening jog may be borrowed from Lucy, but it’s no longer the envious fantasy of Pilar’s designer cardies or the void of the gorilla mask. Instead it’s a new self in chrysalis. The tracksuit may not sit comfortably yet, but there’s hope one day she’ll grow into it.
The Maid is released in the UK on 27th August 2010.