THE CHAMBERMAID follows several days in the working life of Eve (Gabriela Cartol), a young and conscientious maid working at a prestigious hotel in Mexico City.
This is one of those films for which the description ‘understated’ is something of an understatement. Covering a fairly brief period in the lead-up to the staff’s payday in what looks to be a very high-class Mexican hotel, it offers none of the usual shenanigans associated with films set in hotels, limiting itself to subtle staff dynamics, the minor oddities of guests and the mild ambitions of its protagonist, 24-year-old Evelia, known as Eve. Eve, evidently from a very poor neighbourhood and parted from her four-year-old son for long periods at a time, uses her spare time to complete her education and looks forward to being awarded cleaning duties on the 42nd floor, the highest and grandest in the hotel. Much of her interaction with her manager emphasises how much she covets the pretty red dress from the lost-and-found department.
The story’s subtlety and apparently small stakes will no doubt bore some viewers. However, this is a deliberate choice by first-time director Lila Avilés, who doubles down on this approach through the simplicity of her film-making. She never takes the story outside the confines of the hotel, which means that Eve’s relationship with her son is only seen during the brief moments she snatches between her duties to make phone calls home. Depriving herself of the benefit of a musical soundtrack, Avilés instead relies on the more realistic sound-world of the hotel going about its business — though this might be said to develop a music of its own. Visually, too, the emphasis is on simplicity: for much of the time, the camera is content to watch Eve at work in the hotel’s rooms as she efficiently carries out her routine tasks. Avilés also likes to repeat the set up of shots to emphasise the uniformity of hotel work, perhaps most obviously in the lift scenes, and takes advantage of the natural symmetries found in the hotel environment. Every so often, however, she allows herself the luxury of showing an everyday object from an unusual angle so that at first it’s not clear what it is.
For those willing to go along with its minimalist approach, the film offers many pleasures. In particular, the performance of Gabriela Cartol as Eve has a detailed naturalism that keeps the viewer guessing as to what is going on behind her deadpan expression. We see the variety of interactions Eve has with guests, from the downright rude to the over-familiar, and how she is able to recalibrate her subordinate position to cater to each of these. Through her fascination with the photographs of one ever-absent guest, we get a small sense of what Eve’s future aspirations may be.
For the first half of the film Eve remains standoffish with most of her colleagues, though it is difficult to know how much of this is shyness and how much a desire not to get involved; the world she lives in is, after all, predatory and ruthless. Under the tutelage of a new acquaintance, the large and exuberant ‘Minitoy’ (Teresa Sánchez), Eve comes out of her shell in the second half of the film, revealing an unexpected sensuality and capacity for fun. This even extends to a wordless flirtation with the hotel’s window-cleaner.
Still, this brief sense of contentment cannot last, and even though Eve probably expected that it would end, she is young and hopeful enough to be disappointed when it does. Though limited in scope like the rest of the film, Eve’s final outburst of fury and frustration, culminating in an iconic scene on the hotel roof, still manages to pack a punch.