The Chambermaid, directed by Lila Aviles, is one of the most impressive debut films in recent memory. It feels like a perfect combination of Chantal Akerman and Lars von Trier, descending into the surprisingly meticulous world of hotel maintenance and trapping audiences in a housekeeper’s endless loop of dehumanization. It is a suffocating film, one that takes something like a guest coming to a room before it is fully cleaned and fills us with worry. It puts audiences in the shoes of a person many of us have never known but have likely seen time and time again. It is a startlingly gorgeous movie that is among one of the best films of the year.
Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is a young chambermaid at a luxury hotel in Mexico City. She cleans the rooms like she is being timed, leaving not even the slightest imperfection, and knowing she did flawless work. While cleaning these expensive suites, she is able to look out at the gorgeous city skyline that her guests see during their restful stays. The wealthy guests on her floor make absurd requests for seemingly endless amounts of toiletries or even ask her to be their temporary babysitter. When she leaves these gorgeous rooms, she must get on the elevator to descend into the bowels of the hotel. The serenity and total silence of the guestrooms is in sharp contrast to the mechanical, almost sinister elevator and the loud and continuous din of the break rooms. There, Eve must also deal with the hierarchy of the hotel’s cleaning department, where the higher the floor, the higher the pay for the cleaning staff. As Eve pushes herself to not only get her GED but to earn a much-needed promotion, she starts to unravel over the monotonous yet demanding job she is trapped in.
Director Lila Aviles, an actress who has starred in several Mexican television shows, has a control on this film that is nothing short of marvelous. While The Chambermaid is without a doubt a film about class, it never feels heavy-handed the way last year’s similarly themed Roma sometimes did. Aviles films Eve toiling away with an almost voyeuristic approach, locking the camera and the viewer into the various day-to-day operations of her job. Although Eve’s tasks might be repetitive, we never get bored as a viewer because we are constantly either rooting for Eve to succeed or worrying about what might happen next. Aviles is able to tax the emotions of viewers, not unlike how Lars von Trier did with 2003’s Dogville, a movie where a person attempting to do good deeds was slowly exploited by an entire town. While The Chambermaid never gets to the darkest places Dogville went to, there is constant apprehension about what Eve has to endure. By keeping the film entirely at the hotel, there is no delineation of days. The entire film continues on like one horrible and exhausting shift, which is likely how Eve herself feels.
Gabriela Cartol is fantastic as Eve, stoic and steadfast in her job, but relatable and caring at the same time. This role could easily have been either emotionless, choosing to primarily tap into Eve’s degradation and numbness due to her seemingly-never-ending labor, or overly sensationalized, using Eve as a tool meant to make the audience feel bad for her and other housekeepers. There is never a false moment in Cartol’s performance. The film and her performance never beg the audience for sympathy. They simply ask that she and others like her be treated as people for their thankless jobs and paid accordingly.
The sound design of The Chambermaid is also to be commended. The periodic shift between the beautiful simplicity of the guest rooms and the chaotic nature of the work cafeteria emphasizes the massive divide between the two worlds of the hotel. From the industrial grinding of cleaning machines to the piercing cackle of a boisterous co-worker, we are unable to do anything but put ourselves into Eve’s experience. The Chambermaid is yet another example that how even a low-budget film can have a completely immersive sound design.
The Chambermaid is a film that really sneaks up on the audience. What easily could have been another story of how class in a Mexican city leads to the mistreatment of the working class instead becomes a carefully constructed, beautiful, and emotional experience. Lila Aviles’ The Chambermaid is a film that needs to be seen by everyone. It will no doubt play in the minds of viewers next time they stay at a hotel, humanizing a person who is so often ignored.