Mexican director Lila Aviles is a new and intriguing face in the international cinema scene. A former stage actress, and a student of screenwriting under award-winning writers Beatriz Novaro and Paula Markovitch, she directed theatre and opera before finally branching out into filmmaking with a 2017 documentary short. Her first feature film, The Chambermaid (La Camarista), premiering at TIFF and the London Film Festival wearing rock character clothing, is a striking debut which reveals a considerable talent. The film was inspired partly by a stage play of the same name, and partly by a book of photographs by Sophie Calle, ‘Hotel,’ which showed images of hotel rooms, their residents, and the staff that worked in them. Aviles’ research included shadowing hotel chambermaids at high-end Mexican hotels; the experience led her to greater respect for the maids and their work, and resulted in the script she co-wrote with Joan Marquez.
It’s hard to imagine subject matter more mundane than we see in virtually every scene in The Chambermaid, yet somehow the story grabs our attention from the first moment, simply by making its humble central character human and relatable. While watching it on our fierce PC laptop, it opens on a young woman in a hotel cleaning staff uniform, surveying the unholy mess of a well-used hotel room. She begins cleaning up, but suddenly stops when she discovers the guest, an elderly man, lying on the floor, and her work expands to making sure he is alive and uninjured, even as she cautiously assesses the threat he may represent. In this way, we are introduced to the daily life of a chambermaid working at a hotel she could never afford to visit. The camera follows her through her routine chores of picking up trash, changing sheets, scrubbing toilets, in a manner so naturalistic it sometimes resembles a documentary.
The heroine is Eva (Gabriela Cartol), a young woman we very gradually get to know. It first become clear that Eva is a diligent, polite, hard-working member of the staff. She scrupulously follows the rules, right down to the details of placing the pillows in guest rooms and the times she is permitted to make phone calls. Her supervisor comments on how ‘well behaved’ she is. Eva is careful of her every move, speaking seldom, never spending money if she can avoid it, eating sparingly in the staff cafeteria. She rebuffs the hotel window-washer who tries to flirt with her, seeming to regard any personal indulgence as dangerous to her job security or her advancement. Even workplace friendships are mistrusted and avoided, until she cautiously accepts the friendly overtures of a gregarious fellow maid who goes by the nickname of Minitoy.
At first, we can discover only hints about Eva from her reactions; she is calm and expresses little emotion. In time, we learn that she is ambitious and hopes very much to better her situation. She is pleased and excited to learn that she is being considered for a position on the coveted forty-second floor, a part of the hotel reserved for VIPs, which seems to take on an almost mythical significance among the hotel staff. She is also attending an informal class held by the hotel, offering preparation to adults trying to earn their high school diploma, where Eva is the most attentive, and evidently the brightest, of the lot. She takes extra time she can ill afford to provide personal care to a wealthy female guest and her infant, tolerating unwitting snobbery and insensitivity from the woman, in the vague hope of gaining some professional benefit. It is clear Eva wants more from her life, and equally clear that she has little opportunity of getting it.
As the film draws us into Eva’s life and her modest hopes, we gather more about her background. Passing remarks reveal that she lives in a place distant from the hotel’s upscale neighbourhood, in a home without hot tap water – perhaps typical of the staff at this luxurious hotel. We learn that Eva has a son she raises alone; she telephones her little boy whenever she has a break, speaking to him with great affection and showing more warmth and feeling that she ever displays while on duty; she is clearly unhappy to be away from him for such long hours. Her response to a question about her child’s care while she is at work, although consisting only of a calm word or two, reveals volumes about the painful choices her life requires.
For a while, Eva’s dogged determination to improve her circumstances appears to make some headway. First, Eva’s academic work is praised by her instructor, and the opportunity to receive a diploma seems to be within her grasp. Second, she is told she is the strong favourite for the position on the forty-second floor. Encouraged and hopeful, Eva becomes still more meticulous in her work. This brief period of optimism is followed by a series of disappointments – tragedies, on Eva’s personal scale. Opening up to her colleague Minitoy turns out to have been a mistake after all, one which costs her dearly. Hopeful opportunities shut down one by one. We finally see Eva react emotionally, and as the camera closes in on her, we watch her acknowledge, in various small, poignant, almost symbolic ways, her sense of futility, before finally starting for home, leaving the hotel environment for the first time since the film began.
This absolutely minimalist film works mainly because filmmaker Lila Aviles uses the restraint necessary to allow the audience to become familiar with Eva, to allow her life and personality to be slowly revealed through subtle reactions and passing references. It is Aviles’ delicate touch which makes small moments, such as Eva’s first, envious glimpse of the hotel’s executive floor, or her anxious care over minute details of her room cleaning in hopes of gaining some tangible reward, take on the necessary importance; which makes us care about these trivial things for Eva’s sake. Eva’s unimportance is part of her life, and it takes time and vision to work through this mask of insignificance to the real person. Eva is barely visible to the other characters in the film, one of many identically dressed hotel maids, and her anonymity only gradually becomes transparent through the skill of the director, allowing us to see, and finally feel and share, the genuine desires, hopes, suffering, and anger of the real woman. It is a beautifully managed character study.