This debut from former actress Lila Avilés marks her out as a name to watch
Dir. Lila Avilés. Mexico/US. 2018. 102 mins
This autumn has been a good time for glimpses of ordinary working lives in Mexico City. First Venice gave us a Golden Lion-winning portrait of a family maid in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; now, in San Sebastián’s New Directors section (after a Toronto Discovery bow), here’s something chillier, but no less striking in its own way. Lila Avilés’s The Chambermaid is coolly unsentimental to the point of being glacial, but possessed of a deadpan wit and downplayed humanistic warmth of its own.
Eve seems to be suspended in an eternal daytime present, as if she never actually leaves the premises
This debut feature by a sometime actress, stage producer and opera director features formally crisp execution; a wry take on the social politics of the hospitality industry; and a poised lead performance by Gabriela Cartol that’s so undemonstrative that it’s practically an exercise in Zen. While The Chambermaid is perhaps too coolly detached an item for commercial appeal, but on the festival circuit it will mark Aviles as a name to watch.
The Chambermaid is set entirely within the rooms, corridors and subterranean service spaces of a luxurious Mexico City hotel – unnamed in the film, although it was shot in the upmarket Presidente Intercontinental. Cartol – whose feature credits include 2014’s La Tirisia – plays Evelia, Eve for short, a young woman who works as a chambermaid. She has a single floor allocated to her, but has been told that if she continues to work hard – which means very hard indeed – she’ll be allocated the prestigious, newly reopened 42nd floor. Long hours leave her unable to see much of her four year-old child, but shy, taciturn Eve consoles herself by pinning her hopes on the promised glory upstairs, and by taking an interest in the things that wealthy guests leave behind. She’s particularly keen on a red dress that she handed in to Lost Property, and has been assured that she’s first on the list to keep it if it remains unclaimed.
Usually more or less invisible to the clientele, Eve is sometimes called on by them to provide extra services – whether it’s pressing lift buttons for an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, or tending the baby of a voluble and spoilt Argentinian woman (a nicely abrasive Agustina Quinci). Generally keeping herself to herself, she occasionally encounters other staff, including a friendly elderly woman who has been doing elevator service for two years, and a tubby window cleaner who seems to have taken a fancy to Eve – prompting her eventually to return his attentions at a distance, in the one scene where the film crosses over, albeit plausibly, into a realm of borderline fantasy.
Meanwhile, signing on for the hotel’s education programme, Eve finds herself befriended – and possibly romantically sounded out – by Miriam, aka Minitoy (Teresa Sanchez), a confident older woman who got her name from her side trade in amusing knick-knacks. In fact, just about everyone seems to have something to sell or swap in the hotel’s secret barter economy – friendship among workers often based on helping each other out with emergency tidying, stain removal and the like.
The film – partly inspired by the book Hotel, by French artist and photographer Sophie Calle - derives much of its power from the deliberate pacing and a certain wilful repetitiveness in the way Aviles shows us Eve’s daily grind. Apart from a crucial shot towards the end, the entire film takes place inside the hotel – whether in its below-stairs staff and maintenance spaces, or in the rooms, which give spectacular skyline views of Mexico City but only underline this milieu’s claustrophobic enclosure. In terms of time and editing, Eve seems to be suspended in an eternal daytime present, as if she never actually leaves the premises.
There’s no music, unless you count one scene’s insistent tinnitus-like ambient buzz, but Guido Beremblum’s sound design emphasises the hum of air conditioning, the whirring of lift mechanisms, the resonance of voices in empty space. Within this sound space, Cartol’s ever-enigmatic Eve radiates a sort of personal silence – right up to the ending, which could be seen as melancholic or triumphant, depending on how you interpret the tantalisingly unresolved note that caps this distinctive minor-key achievement.
Production companies: Limerencia, La Panda Productions, Bad Boy Bill Productions
International sales: Alpha Violet, email@example.com
Producers: Tatiana Graullera, Pau Brunet, Axel Shalson
Screenplay: Lila Avilés, Juan Carlos Marquez
Cinematography: Carlos Rossini
Editor: Omar Guzmán
Main cast: Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez, Agustina Quinci