omg The Maid (chile)

opening scene. raquel, a youngish-looking maid in a wealthy chilean household, is thrown an after-dinner birthday party by the family she has been serving for 20 years. turns out it’s her 40th birthday. you do the math. twenty years? 40 years old? dang. half a lifetime spent living with these folks. as if to flesh out your perplexity, shock even, at this extraordinary but all-too-common fact of human existence — people indenturing themselves to others — the director, sebastián silva, segues with a merciless look at the routine of raquel’s life, which consists of focused, meticulously practiced, down to a T, not-a-second-of-rest work.

it’s work you and i would not be doing if our lives depended on it, but it’s work raquel has so fused her identity to, she does it in a trance and yet, strikingly, with great personal investment. she does it like her life depends on it.

and her life does, because she’s getting sick. she has fainting spells. she’s been doing this for 20 years and she’s exhausted. there are four kids to look after; she’s raised all four of them.

her señora, pilar, who is so real i think the actress who plays her should have gotten as many nominations and wins as the actress who plays raquel did (they are, respectively, claudia celedón and catalina saavedra), becomes concerned about raquel’s overworking and decides to hire someone to help her. chaos ensues.

the establishing scene, the birthday party, contains all the elements the movie goes on to explore and unravel. as the family, which is sitting around a large dinner table, “quietly” (raquel is an open door away and can hear perfectly well) readies the cake and the presents, raquel seats stony-faced in the kitchen, eating her dinner. she knows what’s going on and is pleased in a way we’ll become familiar with during the first half of the movie. it’s a grumpy sort of pleasure, the pleasure of someone who feels both proud and entitled and beaten and drained of life. it’s a slavish kind of pleasure — you feel the presents, the celebration, are owed you, yet, at the same time, you have internalized the concept of your inferiority so profoundly that you feel, also, that you don’t deserve them. as the film goes on to show, that way madness lies.

pilar is a masterpiece of kind and loving patronage. she’s a university professor (which suggests to us that she knows about class and privilege and is able to do her own deconstructions), she’s full of cheer and wisdom, and she genuinely loves raquel. she rules the house with the generosity and wisdom of those who think their lives through and mean to do well. and yet she can’t escape the entrapment of privilege. she makes her maids wear uniforms, she keeps them to a very tight schedule (the movie never shows any commanding or disapproving gesture by her, but there are subtle moments here and there you will not miss), she embodies with ease the simple and unquestioned belief that servants are no more family members than pets are, or children.

the equation of children and servants is one of the strong points of the movie. the oldest child, camila, is about 20, and, unlike her mom, she is uncomfortable with the whole maid situation. raquel, who seems to have an unconscious feeling for this, is unkind to the girl and much favors the second oldest child, an adorable young teenage boy who loves raquel with great sensitivity and is loved right back. director silva spends good screen time on the looks in the eyes of these two kids as they negotiate the discomfort of seeing raquel’s mental and physical health deteriorate. pilar brushes this discomfort under the rug, but the kids don’t like it.

so, in a way, the servant and the children are like siblings who are in different power relations with their parents (something that happens all the time and is in fact inevitable): they uneasily watch out for each other, while also protecting themselves when one of them comes undone.

while the infantilization, if we can call it that, of the children is part of the growth process and something whose sloughing off is built into this process, the infantilization of the servant is a social disease: it has nowhere to go. the servant will never grow out of it. the only resolution is the servant’s aging and ultimate dismissal. thus, it breads insecurity, fear, paranoia, and brutishness (that’s why the movie starts with raquel’s 40th rather than 30th birthday).

the film presents raquel almost as an animal — her movements, her way of walking, her body, her facial expressions are those of a cow, an ox, a beast of burden. she lies under the shower in a slump, her tummy bulging out. most of all, though, her eyes betray a constant animal alertness and anxiety, a fear of betrayal, punishment, failure, demise, dismissal.

i’ve said enough. this is a tremendous analysis of the relation between wealthy, educated, well-meaning women and their servants; it’s also a tremendous investigation of female solidarity, the bonding between women that happens in spite of structures built to prevent it. finally, it is a really nice take on the crazy-maid motif (one can’t help thinking of chabrol’s la cérémonie), with a whole different resolution.

4 thoughts on “omg The Maid (chile)”

  1. another movie, entirely unconnected: doris dörrie’s cherry blossoms (2008), which deservedly won some awards here and there (mostly in germany). it’s a small film about grieving, and not getting everything right. i’d be spoiling things if i gave details, so i’ll just say that a middle-aged-to-elderly couple who has raised three very (probably justifiedly) grumpy children who now live independent lives and are not close to their aging parents finds itself suddenly having to deal with grief and loss, and being quite unprepared for it. dörrie could have packaged it nicely, but she prefers to go the hard way and show that grief is a very lonely state and you deal with it the best you can, all alone, and if no one understands one damn thing of what you do, then so be it. she also shows how noxious and damaged family dynamics cannot be changed overnight, or ever, because they were assembled by people who don’t know any better than to be their limited, unenlightened, maybe stunting selves. so that’s another sorrow to grieve, for everyone involved.

    i know what this two films have in common! there’s a little free-spirited angel who enters the scene at some point and shows the way out. i knew there was something.

  2. The Maid frustrated me for the first hour. Raquel has indeed internalized her subservience to a point of unhealthy extremes, but the film does not strike me a materialist critique of bourgeois power relations (class privilege, etc.) as much as it is an intimate, cringe-worthy portrait of self-abnegation in great need of repair. By and large, the film eschews psychological back story (and is, for me, more conventional than it first appears). In fact, the film is structured as a comedy and ends like a comedy. I might go so far as to argue that, politically speaking, the film is quite conservative. Jean Genet it is not.

    I did not read Camila as being “uncomfortable with the whole maid situation.” She seemed to understand and accept Raquel’s position in the house (otherwise she would not have so easily asked the woman to avoid vacuuming the hallway outside her door the morning after the birthday party). Camila struck me as frustrated and confused by Raquel’s recent turn against her. If indeed there is some “sibling” rivalry going on, it struck me that Raquel was threatened by Camila, who is approaching an age where she no longer needs a nanny (or maybe it has something to do with the fact that Camila is about the same age as Raquel was when she first entered this household). All signs point to the fact (as you articulate so well Gio) that Raquel is loved. This woman is treated with more respect than the actions on the screen suggests she deserves. To be honest, Raquel was a really difficult character to like. She is an emotionally stunted, mean-spirited woman who, well, needs to get a life. I guess one could argue it is the family’s responsibility to make sure she develops a life outside of the home (though evidence suggests she has purposefully cut herself off from family), and on that end they are potentially guilty of not doing for Raquel what they do for their own kids (raising them to be self-dependent and emotionally healthy members of society). I certainly have no experience with such matters to know what the responsibilities are between the head of the family and their “help.” But it does seem as if the desire to bring someone in to assist Raquel is the humane move.

    Finally, I guess I want to push back at your suggestion that the film is a “tremendous investigation of female solidarity, the bonding between women that happens in spite of structures built to prevent it.” I don’t doubt that is a genuine concern in the real world, but I cannot find one moment in the cinematic world suggesting there are structures present to prevent “bonding between women.” Indeed, Pilar and family go out of her way to implore Raquel to travel with Lucy to Lucy’s home. And while you have not mentioned much about Lucy (short the “little free-spirited angel” reference in your response to Cherry Blossoms), her entrance into the dramatic action is what makes this film such a lovely, winning, sentimentally appealing character study. And in those final moments, as Raquel decides to take a jog in the neighborhood, well . . . all seems to be right with the world.

  3. hey jeff, looks like we “felt” and “read” the movie in dramatically different ways. since i have no tools in my critical mind at this time to defend my reading i’ll let our differences stand for the time being, hoping that at some point people might want to jump in.

    i do grant that the last scene is not the film’s finest.

    maybe more later!

  4. Well, I do think this is a great example of how a film can generate multiple meanings (dependent on context as well as what we bring with us into the experience). That last scene may not be the “film’s finest,” but it is the film’s final image. It struck me as triumphant and in no way ironic, but we shall see if anyone else takes the bait.

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