The Help looks poised to be a huge hit this weekend, and everyone is healthily chewing over the book and the film’s racial politics. There’s even a panel discussion on this subject going on at Dock Bookshop on the 18th. For my part, I’ve been struck by how many other movies about maids I’ve seen recently. I thought I’d make a comparative list of recent movies on the subject. In the interests of brevity, I’m limiting this list to movies about personal maids: no hotel maids, scullery maids, housekeepers, or nannies need apply. Also, the last entry on the list has just come out on DVD and is well worth seeking out.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Premise: The title character (Kathy Bates) is a New England maid who’s arrested for murdering her employer (Judy Parfitt). Her daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tries to clear her name. Based on Stephen King’s novel.
Notes: This potboiler thriller isn’t really about a maid’s profession so much as it is about the buried secret in her own family that Dolores is hiding. As a thriller, it’s a rickety vehicle that’s largely saved by Bates and Leigh acting the living hell out of their roles. The only time the movie really engages Dolores’ work is during a chilling scene when the flinty lady of the house counsels Dolores on how to manage her abusive husband: “Husbands die, Dolores, and they leave their wives their money.”
The lesson: Um, what she just said.
La Cérémonie (1996)
Premise: A meek, obedient maid named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) joins a French family. It ends badly. Based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgment in Stone.
Notes: Isabelle Huppert actually takes up most of the oxygen in this movie as a trashy postal worker who befriends the maid and becomes a malign influence on her. However, Bonnaire plays perfectly off her, portraying Sophie as a blank slate who’s capable of anything. The late director Claude Chabrol (was there ever a better cinematic match for Rendell?) unspools this tale of servants rising up against their masters with his typical ruthlessness.
The lesson: Your maid is seething with class resentment and wants to kill you.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)
Premise: A 17th-century Dutch girl named Griet (Scarlett Johansson) gets a job working for a local painter named Jan Vermeer (a long-haired, wildly staring Colin Firth). Nobody outside of Delft knows who he is, but with her help, he’ll eventually be world-famous. Based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel.
Notes: Part of a regrettable trend in historical fiction wherein some marginalized character is a stand-in for the modern reader who’s every bit as enlightened and tolerant as us. The film sure looks good (and the Vermeer canvases you see in the film are the real items), but the way Griet becomes a part of art history is unconvincing in the extreme. This film earns bonus points for depicting the tedium of the maid’s labor, polishing the flatware, preparing huge meals, and hanging washing on the line even in freezing weather. Also, Judy Parfitt’s in this movie, too.
The lesson: Your maid is a better art critic than you.
Live-In Maid (2007)
Premise: An older Argentinian maid named Dora (Norma Argentina) has to cope as Beba (Norma Aleandro), the formerly wealthy woman who has employed her almost 30 years, slips further down the economic ladder.
Notes: Made during the throes of yet another economic crisis for the country of Argentina, Jorge Gaggero’s film examines in minute detail the shifting relationship between these two women. They can’t be real friends, but if Beba turned to Dora at the end and said, Driving Miss Daisy-style, “You’re my best friend,” it wouldn’t be wrong. Bonus points because Norma Argentina actually worked for decades as a maid before making her acting debut here.
The lesson: When you lose all your money, your maid will be your only friend.
The Maid (2009)
Premise: A 41-year-old Chilean maid named Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) who has spent her entire adult life working for an upper-class Santiago family inches ever closer to a breakdown.
Notes: Undoubtedly this is the best movie in this post. (That’s probably why I had it in my list of 2009’s best films.) Writer-director Sebastián Silva not only closely observes the maid’s work but catches all sorts of observations: how maids and employers become psychologically dependent on one another, how maids often functions as a third parent, how maids can become territorial when more than one works in the same house. The film’s small-scale realism belies the scope of its insights.
The lesson: Your maid is far more complicated than you think.
The Housemaid (2011)
Premise: An attractive young South Korean woman named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) goes to work for a married concert pianist (Lee Jung-jae) with a family. She has an affair with him, and it goes wrong in ways that go well beyond losing her job.
Notes: Everyone seems to think that the original 1960 Korean film was better, but this remake is much easier to find on DVD and it’s no slouch, either. Director Im Sang-soo neatly arranges the visuals in blacks, grays, and whites while working out his signature obsessions with sex and power. What he can’t do is build much suspense, but actors Lee and Jeon (whose work in Secret Sunshine made my list of last year’s best performances) generate tons of erotic heat to make up for it. The climax is way over the top, a very Korean conflagration.
The lesson: While sex with your maid is hot, it’s still a bad idea.
The Fish Child (2011)
Premise: A Paraguayan housemaid named Ailín (Mariela Vitale) and her Argentinian employer’s daughter Lala (Inés Efron) are deeply in love, but when the master of the house (Pep Munné) turns up murdered and Ailín falsely confesses to the crime, Lala has to bust her girlfriend out of prison. Based on the filmmaker’s own novel.
Notes: This Argentinian film never got a proper U.S. theatrical release, no surprise with that title, which is a faithful translation of the Spanish title El Niño Pez (referring to Ailín’s fairy tale about an enchanted lake spirit), but probably doomed any commercial chances the movie had here. Writer-director Lucía Puenzo lays the story out in an unnecessarily confusing way and doesn’t do justice to the thriller element here, but she’s bailed out by a terrific performance by Inés Efron (who, as far as I can tell, is no relation to Zac Efron). The tiny Efron previously starred as an intersex 15-year-old in Puenzo’s fascinating 2008 debut film XXY, and she projects all kinds of steely determination to dig her girlfriend out of hell along with an intriguingly androgynous sexual presence.
The lesson: Sex with your maid may be a bad idea, but if you’re willing to take a bullet for her, it just might work out.