I puzzled over this film for some time but then discovered that its script was based on a 1999 play by Marie NDyiae, the French writer with a Senegalese father. I came across her as the co-writer of White Material (France-Cameroon 2009) directed by Claire Denis. This revelation didn’t explain everything but it did confirm the European ingredients in the narrative mix and the politics of race and class. During the screening I couldn’t help thinking about Luis Buñuel and some of his Mexican as well as his Spanish films. Although the overall narrative is not Buñuelian there are certainly recognisable elements including the disruption of an upper middle-class formal dinner and the whole concept of relationships between ‘masters’ and ‘servants’. That said there is also a distinct Latin American interest in ‘the maid’. I remember a Bolivian film Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) and La Nana (The Maid, Chile 2009).
‘Hilda’ is the name of a young woman recruited (reluctantly) as the maid/nanny for the Le Marchands, a very wealthy Mexico City family. Hilda is married to Francisco who was previously the gardener for the same family. Senora Le Marchand has a hold over Francisco to whom she has lent money to buy a house. He is now in the process of paying back these loans – which gives the Senora leverage to coerce his wife into the maid’s job. Senora Le Marchand (Susanna) is a woman in her 60s and the nanny role refers to her grandson. Her son has returned from America with his wife and child. Meanwhile Senor Le Marchand is in cahoots with the local police chief and is attempting to acquire an American business partner in order to expand his manufacturing business. He ignores and humiliates his wife (he gives her a new passport in which she is described as a housewife and a high school graduate). In fact she was at university in 1968 and she joined the radical students. Later she became a charity organiser. Now she is feeling nostalgic for those days and increasingly alienated from her husband. When she is asked for an interview about her 1968 activities by current students she becomes obsessed with her memories. She has always tried to be ‘fair’ to her servants and to include them ‘in the family’. But this time she becomes obsessed with Hilda – the maid works hard and is very efficient but displays no emotion until Susanna forces her to become enthusiastic and ‘passionate’. But Susanna gradually becomes ever more obsessive and we realise that she is out of control . . .
The film’s writer and director, Andres Clariond has explained that the film is a response to the great inequalities of Mexican society based on wealth, social class and ethnicity. Many of the Mexican films that make it into international distribution use the same themes to some extent. Y tu mamá también, for example makes some of the same points and La Zona emphasises the increasing alienation caused by the rise of gated communities and the security guard culture. Indeed the setting for the action rarely steps outside the Le Marchand house in which Hilda is virtually a prisoner. The film is presented in CinemaScope and I did wonder if we were heading for a full-blown family melodrama. That doesn’t really develop and instead we get more of a psychological study of Susanna, a woman who is representative of those ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ (as Godard once put it) who have reached their 60s and begun to wonder what exactly they’ve achieved. By contrast we never learn that much about Hilda. Veteran actor Verónica Langer as Susanna and Adrianna Paz as Hilda do well with the script they have been given but my impression was that there was something missing – perhaps this is because of the opening out of a play? I felt that the climactic section of the narrative developed too quickly and at only 89 minutes I wondered if something had been left out. There is a sub-plot about the son of the Le Marchand family as well as the impact of his father’s attempt to join up with American business. These narrative threads add to the overall structure but don’t completely mesh with the Susanna-Hilda story. Even so, the film worked for me, offering a mix of political satire, social commentary and psychological study.