Director: Amanda Sthers
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Toni Collette, Rossy de Palma, Michael Smiley, Tom Hughes, Violaine Gillibert, Stanislas Merhar, Sue Cann
Runtime: 1 hr 32 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Nudity and Sexual References)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 7 December 2017
Synopsis: Anne and Bob, an American couple living in Paris, organise a dinner party and invite ten friends. To their surprise, Bob's son arrives, and the total number of people for dinner now becomes 13.
The superstitious Anne insists her maid Maria disguises herself as a mysterious Spanish noble woman to even out the numbers. But a little too much wine and some playful chat lead Maria to accidentally endear herself to David, a dandy British art broker. Their budding romance will have Anne chasing her maid around Paris and finally plotting to destroy this most unexpected and joyous love affair.
‘Madame’ reimagines the classic Cinderella story as a modern-day class comedy. Instead of a young ingénue, the Cinderella here is an upper middle-aged woman named Maria (Rossy de Palma) who has been working as the principal housekeeper to crusty American couple Anne (Toni Collette) and Bob (Harvey Keitel) as well as their two children for the past ten years. Maria meets the British art broker David (Michael Smiley) when the latter is invited to the house for dinner together one evening, an otherwise carefully planned occasion thrown into disarray when Bob’s son from his previous marriage, Steven (Tom Hughes), makes a surprise visit. Rather than brook 13 guests, Anne requests that Maria dress up and pretend to be a family friend at the table, with strict instructions not to eat or smile or drink too much. Alas, Anne cannot quite restrain her vivacious self or her love for alcohol, her gregariousness turning her into the belle of the ball while leaving David utterly besotted.
Believing that Maria is some Spanish princess, David pursues her with dates, gifts and proclamations of love, much to the chagrin of Anne. Partly out of affront to Maria’s seeming disregard of her rightful place in society and partly out of sheer envy, Anne is determined to end their burgeoning romance. On the other hand, Maria struggles to keep up her guise, fearing that David will recoil if he found out that she were just a maid. As written and directed by French writer turned filmmaker Amanda Sthers who makes her English-language debut here, this is as much Maria’s story as it is one about Anne and Bob, the former’s fairytale-like affair standing in stark contrast with the latter’s waning marriage – not only have the two not have sex in a long while, both are becoming simultaneously embroiled in adulterous relationships that only serve to pull them further apart from each other.
As tempting as it may be to see ‘Madame’ as a satire on class and societal privilege, Sthers isn’t entirely comfortable making fun of the upper-class and/or drawing sympathy to the immigrant underclass. Whereas the first act plays like a comedy of manners, the latter two are constructed as character studies around Anne, Maria and, to a slightly lesser extent, Bob. In Sthers’ eye, both Anne and Maria are trapped by their respective social status and therefore in unenviable positions, although she does emphasise that either has the choice to break away from convention and forge their own path – and one of them, though we’re not telling you who, eventually does so at the end of the movie. But whether as parody or drama, Sthers’ film ultimately comes off too slight to be biting or compelling, offering no more than a handful of chuckles or thoughtful lessons on self-empowerment.
Though the titular lady of the house may refer to Collette’s Anne, it is de Palma who steals the show. Fans of Almodovar’s films will certainly recognise her as his muse, having starred in seven of his movies thus far, and true enough, de Palma is joyous to watch whether falling in love or fretting about it like a schoolgirl. Next to de Palma, Collette’s exaggerated take on Anne comes off false, but the actress does manage enough notes of authenticity towards the end of the film in portraying her character’s emotional frailties. Keitel, on the other hand, just seems to be enjoying his time soaking in the Parisian boudoirs and French countryside villas, though it is arguable that his character is easily the most underwritten among the three.
So even though it may boast the trappings of a classic Cinderella story, ‘Madame’ isn’t an uplifting romance in that way. There are some delightful scenes between Maria and David, but there is no fairytale ending to speak of. Neither is it biting satire, seeing as how it refuses to take sides. That eventually leaves the film nowhere here nor there, not quite funny or moving enough to justify a recommendation either way. It does have a jaunty, breezy vibe throughout, so unless you’re in the mood for some undemanding light-hearted fare, there’s probably no reason to pay this ‘Madame’ a visit.
(Not quite romantic, funny or moving enough to justify a recommendation, ‘Madame’ offers only the slightest pleasures for those looking for some undemanding light-hearted fare)
Review by Gabriel Chong