‘Madame’ (2017): “The comedy of upper class errors”
Ah, Paris: City of Romance. You can tell from the get-go that our lead couple are artsy types. He wears Truman Capote glasses and she simply must cycle through the streets of Paree, an accordion trilling in her mind.
So is our introduction to Anne and Bob Fredericks (Toni Colette and Harvey Keitel), Americans temporarily living in Paris, in a sumptuous apartment with their staff. Ann and Bob are middle class with high aspirations. (Now children, can you point to their desperation for approval?) They are having a painting of The Last Supper appraised before selling and have invited lots of impressive guests to dinner, including the Mayor of Paris. (Can you point at the nobs?)
But – calamity! There are to be thirteen at dinner. This is a giant no-no in traditional cultured circles. It is thought unlucky because of Judas. (I’m not sure how this works. Jesus had twelve disciples, therefore there were always thirteen at dinner. And also brunch. And in fact, any time they just got together for snacks ‘n’ chill).
So, Anne has a petit meltdown followed by a quick scan of spare people. In this case ‘spare’ people does not include actual friends, partly because she doesn’t seem to have such confidantes but also because Anne needs to maintain the illusion of being a successful hostess. This results in the maid, Maria (Rossy de Palma), being coerced into dressing up as Impressive Guest Number Fourteen – allegedly a Spanish noblewoman. When you hold high station, the main tension arises from the struggle to maintain and build upon that position, and thus of appearances versus reality. The remainder of the film concerns the widening gap between how things are and how Anne believes they should be as it causes pain in her personal, professional and social life.
The film is as aspirational as its characters – and looks beautiful – but seems to lose its way sometimes. Perhaps Sthers was aiming for a light continental confection, but mopeds, pace and a Reinhardt/Grappelli style soundtrack do not a sophisticated French comedy make. The film seems to be having its own difficulty finding a class. Is it a knock-about, fish-out-of-water tale about a maid trying to be posh? It’s a traditional comedy trope, but a bit dated. Is it a treatise on the shoddy treatment of the working class by the middle classes? If this is the case, playing it for laughs seems a miss-step. Perhaps the film is a working-class drama that aspires to be a middle-class farce but all those pesky human feelings get in the way.
The impressive cast turn in appropriately spirited performances. Maria is inhabited by Rossy de Palma perfectly in an extension of her work for Almodóvar. Her regular themes of frantic response to pressure, what constitutes a sin, and her personal modesty are all brought into play. She is a naturally talented comedian but to unify the overall mood of the film, I wonder if this could have been better toned down. As for her art evaluator boyfriend, it’s good to see Michael Smiley in a different kind of role: as a warm, romantic lover, albeit a social climbing one. But this film belongs to Toni Colette. This is Anne’s complex journey. Colette brings a joie de vivre to Anne’s trivialities, and a subtle menace to her “let them eat cake” moments. It is like Muriel has turned into her own bullies. Every moment she is on screen is pitched perfectly.
As a former golf instructor, Anne has raised her station in life. Part of her remains unconvinced she deserves her new position, part of her detests the fact she was ever a lowly servant of the higher classes. Because of this, Anne humiliates, manipulates and threatens Maria. She colonises Maria’s feelings, labels them, and dismisses them. In the same way, some people say “I’m not racist, but …” before going on to say something racist, Anne Fredericks begins with “I don’t want to hurt you, but…” before bringing the cruelty. I don’t think this was meant to be funny. Anne does want to hurt Maria. She hates herself that she so depends on servants, cannot function without them. All of this is to rectify the tiniest and most passé of faux pas. Do people even still worry about having thirteen at dinner?
Anne declares she is “a lifelong Democrat” but, again, what she proclaims to be, and the reality of what she actually is, are two different things. She wishes to appear beneficent. She knows that being a centrist is a more humanist path than a Republican. However, her actions betray that she is actually further to the right than her conscience can cope with. She insists the staff know their place. (Similarly, her son on the surface is friendly with the staff, but he too is merely dipping his toe temporarily). In this film we are shown a middle-class family falsely sharing their affection and withdrawing it without conscience, knowing they will face no consequences.
It makes it more disappointing to witness people who have achieved good fortune in their lives unable to show kindness in their treatment of others. These nouveaux riches desire noblesse, but possess none of its counterparts, oblige. Marie Antoinette had difficulty remembering this too, right up until the point she had difficulty remembering anything at all.
The film raises the questions of lifestyles that cannot happen without the assistance and exploitation of those who are poorer and who have fewer choices. The Fredericks would point to their humanitarian record of providing employment to people (ignoring its necessity). However, Maria is not just selling her time. Her dignity is compromised, her body is used to play dress up with and her privacy is annexed.
There is a seemingly bottomless pit of aspiration of people like the Fredericks, always in want, always with something missing. That troubling chasm between what one aspires to be and what one is demands constant feeding and attention, even if that comes at the cost of positive relationships with employees. The tension between classes propels the film. With some clarification, it would be a cohesive, intelligent but fun film. After an uncertain ending, this identity crisis leaves the viewer with many questions.