Film trivia quizmasters of the future can trip up contestants with the question: “Which movie, first seen in 2018 and shot dispassionately with a camera that keeps the action at arm’s length, follows a young woman working as a domestic in Mexico City?” It could be Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma, though the description applies equally to The Chambermaid, the confident and hypnotic debut from the 37-year-old Mexican director Lila Avilés, who co-wrote the screenplay with Juan Carlos Marquéz.
Mexico City is sinking by approximately a metre each year, and the poorer neighbourhoods, such as the one where Eve (Gabriela Cartol) lives with her four-year-old son, often have little or no running water. But the luxury hotel where Eve works (unnamed on screen, though actually the Presidente InterContinental) keeps rising towards the heavens. In the only shot to venture outside its walls, the camera pans from the helipad up to a sky as white and unblemished as the bed linen. Soon the 42nd floor will be open, and who knows what opulence lies up there? As Eve goes about her duties on the 21st floor in her disfiguring hairnet and gunmetal grey uniform, she is encouraged by her manager to aim higher: “Would you like to work on the 42nd floor? Then hurry up and work hard!” Forty-two has special significance. It’s the answer to the Ultimate Question in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in Egyptian mythology it’s the number of questions that must be settled prior to reincarnation. The show-stopper in 42nd Street is “We’re in the Money” and the title song promises a place “where the underworld can meet the elite”.
Eve certainly harbours aspirations to better herself. Why else would she have first dibs on the fancy red dress in Lost Property? (The nice lady in Housekeeping promises it to her “because you’re so well-behaved”.) She has also been attending adult education classes, and a hotel guest who tips Eve so that she will look after her baby each morning has invited her to be the child’s nanny. That wealthy, pampered mother says she envies Eve for having a job: “You’re very lucky! I would love to go back to work.” She doesn’t know, as we do, that Eve leaves home at four in the morning to get to the hotel by six, and that if a colleague reneges on a promise to cover her late shift she doesn’t get to see her son that day.
It’s not the guests’ job to know. One VIP, who demands more shower gel than he can possibly use, watches TV in his dressing gown and ignores Eve when she enters carrying tiny lemon-coloured bottles that resemble vials of poison. She is dislocated from everyone around her. The woman who reprimands her for eating popcorn in the staff lift doesn’t even look at her. The window cleaner who flirts with her, drawing a love heart in the suds, never gets closer to her than the other side of that glass.
Even the audience is separated from her in some shots – by the glass barrier of a shower stall, or the stack of towels that make it appear that her trolley is trundling down the corridor of its own accord. No wonder Eve’s colleague, the giggling Miriam (Teresa Sánchez), ropes her into a game which involves administering mild electric shocks. It’s an endurance test but it gives them both the chance to feel something – anything – in a working day in which the most exciting event is stealing a squirt of the magic potion, intended only for managerial use, which can shift the most stubborn bloodstain.
Avilés’s disconcerting film, reminiscent in its numbed style of Todd Haynes’s Safe or Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, takes us from the starched suites to the service lifts, laundries and back corridors hidden from view. The language used by staff on their crackling walkie-talkies (“Forgotten item in Room 2154. Guest status?”) makes them sound like android paramilitaries. The soundtrack is either silent or littered with disembodied buzzes, hisses and hums. Geometrically pleasing compositions by the cinematographer Carlos Rossini conceal vital information until the last moment, and divide the screen into sections that reflect this compartmentalised world where guests are oblivious to the people who make their detritus, and their problems, disappear.
The Chambermaid (15)
dir: Lila Avilés
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation