As Anne, a wealthy American socialite living in Paris, Toni Collette is the ‘madame’ referred to. It is, however, Rossy de Palma who owns every minute of this bittersweet, funny but heart-rending movie.
A favourite of the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who has never been afraid of showing people as they really are, de Palma plays Maria, the less-than-pretty maid in the luxurious household of Anne and her partner Bob (Harvey Keitel), who is on the verge of bankruptcy.
When made aware that the dinner party she has planned will have thirteen sitting at table, Anne instructs Maria to join them as a phantom guest, telling her to be quiet and to not drink too much. Obedient but uncomfortable at moving ‘upstairs’ from her ‘downstairs’ working life, Maria tarts up as best she can, gets tipsy on the vin rouge and, without trying, charms an Irish art dealer (Michael Smiley), who has been told beforehand by Anne’s novelist stepson (Tim Fellingham) that she is a distant relative of King Juan Carlos (it’s a classic Shakespearean device of misunderstanding that has profound repercussions). What follows is a scathing critique of class distinctions through an observance of two women’s response to amour: though she might have everything money can buy, Anne is crippled by sexual envy and hardened by pretence and status, while Maria is overwhelmed by an unforeseen passion. There is some declamatory dialogue that paints the picture sharper than it need be, but writer/director Amanda Sthers is always within earshot of Maria’s beating heart.
Sympathy is belatedly encouraged for Madame, but it is a big ask, and it is the maid whom we care for most. Colette, as always, is entirely convincing, but the drama’s intensity is created by de Palma’s understanding of Maria, possibly because the actress is not the ‘beauty’ that pop culture teaches women to strive for. Love forbidden by her station leads Maria to a painful liberation that might, you suspect, forever elude Anne and her type. Fantastic.