Upstairs-downstairs comedy from Amanda Sthers, starring Toni Collette and Rossy de Palma
The traditionally British comedy of manners is given a decidedly continental twist by French writer-director Amanda Sthers, buoyed by solid turns from the ever-marvellous Toni Collette as a wealthy, self-centred American in Paris and Pedro Almodóvar favourite Rossy de Palma as her long-standing (and long-suffering) maid.
Concerned to the point of anxiety with keeping up social appearances – an emotional plight exacerbated by her loveless marriage to much older banker Bob (Harvey Keitel) – Anne (Collette) is aghast to learn that she has an unlucky 13 guests at her latest dinner party. Panicked, she asks affable Spanish maid Maria to pose as a mysterious socialite and take a seat at the table, issuing strict instructions against talking, drinking and eating too much. The enigmatic Maria still manages to pique the romantic interest of art broker David (Michael Smiley), a connection which kick-starts an unforeseen chain of events that causes both women to rethink their place in life.
It's an admittedly slight premise, and the class-clash set-up may be somewhat cliched and old-fashioned, but the charming performances – particularly from the naturally effervescent De Palma – breathe some life into its staid setting. Maria is imbued with a greater depth than other characters, and her understated yet heart-wrenching response to the disdainful treatment she receives lifts a guilt-edged curtain corner on the underbelly of wealth. A late sequence in which Maria serves up tea for two is a beautifully judged, utterly damning observation about the blinkers of deep-rooted social expectation.
Yet Madame is no polemic. With cinematographer Régis Blondeau capturing Paris in romantic soft focus and Sthers' screenplay opting for cultural gaffs rather than political commentary, the film is a lightweight piece of Euro-fluff. Collette, De Palma and Smiley do enough, however, to prevent it from floating away entirely.
Limited release from Fri 20 Jul.