A dinner party by a wealthy, connected American couple on an extended sojourn in Paris is about to be ruined — ruined, I tell you! — when Bob’s (Harvey Keitel) adult son, Steven (Tom Hughes), from a previous marriage turns up unannounced at the last minute and suddenly there will be 13 at the table. Horrors! Anne (Toni Collette) won’t have this — it’s bad luck — so she enlists the head maid, Maria (Rossy de Palma), to join them. Maria is mortified at the prospect: she’s a woman who is very happy with her place in the world and couldn’t possibly pretend to be something that she’s not... for, of course, none of the guests must ever know that she is the maid. But Maria is also a dutiful employee dedicated to her longtime boss, so she agrees.
Madame starts out, then, as a genial drawing-room satire on class, snobbery, and superstition. But it soon turns to a sly romantic comedy as the polite little deception takes a turn for the complicated when charming, well-intentioned Steven — thinking to play a little joke on his father’s friends, but also to ensure that Anna is properly welcomed in the snooty, influential crowd — drops a “hint” to guest David (Michael Smiley), an Irish aristocrat, that Maria may be Spanish nobility going incognito for the evening, but that David should keep it to himself, naturally. And so David is instantly smitten with the shy, modest Maria, who is everything she appears to be on the surface — kind, sweetly awkward, warmly earthy — and whose enigmatic demurrals are about keeping a wildly different sort of secret than he imagines. Shenanigans ensue as Maria continues the charade long after the dinner party is over in order to date David, and Anne’s panic over her scheme being found out by her friends threatens to consume her.
Anne’s villainy and Maria’s decency are complicated and contradicted by the weight of their own self-critical presumptions about what sort of woman they are both “supposed” to be.
This second feature — her first in the English language — from French writer-director Amanda Sthers wraps up shrewd ruminations on the fantasy and pretense of sex and romance with some delicious and very pointed things to say about the crushing expectations placed on women, often by ourselves: on our bodies, on our spirits, on our relationships (with men and with one another). Anne’s villainy — she’s nasty, shallow, and self-absorbed — and Maria’s decency are complicated and contradicted by the weight of all the self-critical presumptions about what sort of woman they are both “supposed” to be and what is allegedly “proper” for them, and which their joint charade may be prompting them to reconsider. Is Anne’s nastiness inspired by jealousy? Of the maid? She’d deny it, but it sure looks like Anne is nowhere near as happy in her love life or in her own skin as Maria is even when she’s pretending to be someone she isn’t. Is Maria, on the other hand, coming to realize that the life she thought she was satisfied with is in fact far too constricting?
Superb and impeccably balanced comic performances by Collette, fueled by Anne’s bitterness and despair, and by de Palma, fueled by Maria’s joy and compassion, turn Madame from a straightforward farce into a particularly feminist take on the rom-com. Kudos to Sthers for giving them this wickedly entertaining opportunity to upend and refresh a tired genre.
‘Madame’ is available on demand in the US.
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