The Chambermaid (La camarista)

Mexico (2018) Dir. Lila Avilés

If there are any unsung heroes in this world devoid of recognition and respect, one could make a strong argument for people who clean up after the rest of us. It might seem like menial work by many but how different would our lives be if these people weren’t around to put everything right for us? Imagine how our holidays would be affected without the efforts of a hotel chambermaid…

Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is one of the many faceless staff of Mexico City’s most luxurious multi-story hotel, working from dawn till dusk to ensure everything was spick and span for the highflying, wealthy guests. A single mum who rarely gets to see her family, Eve has modest aspirations – to get her GED for a chance at a better job, be promoted to work the exclusive uber-expensive 42nd floor, and claim a red dress recently handed into lost property.

The Chambermaid sounds like it should be either a farcical comedy of errors or a tense crime drama, but for her debut, Lila Avilés instead presents a slice-of-life film that eschews a traditional structural narrative. If this sends off “arthouse” alarm bells, calm down, it actually isn’t though it might look that way with its observant fixed camera presentation, focus on the quotidian, and quiet ambiance.

Cinema is meant to be a form of escapism so it is entirely plausible some audiences, especially in the hospitality industry, would hardly relish watching their daily drudgery being played on out the big screen. For the rest of us, it is a fascinating eye opener to be let into the secret world of the hotel staff that is hidden away from the patrons who take them for granted.

Look a little closer and the “us and them” caste system is very much alive among the hotel staff just as much as it exists between the staff and the hotel guests, framing the struggle of someone like Eve as a twofold mountain to climb. Naturally, she has to answer to a manager like anyone else, but it is clear those with a certain potential will get along quicker than those more likely to get lost in the shuffle.

Despite her work ethic, high standard of her work, willingness to help others – for a modest trade in favours – and the sacrifices made for her young son, Eve is posited as one of life’s reliable workhorses whose value to someone is exactly where they are. This makes her eminently relatable to many of us who have seen the idle brown nosers who drift along and get the glory built on the toil and sweat of the rank and file workers.

Avilés symbolises this by the fact each cleaner has their “own” floor and Eve is no 21, halfway to her goal of being at the top of the mountain, and whilst the story is about her striving to achieve this, there is an aching melancholy present that continually portends anything but a happy ending – through no fault of her own, of course.  

Eve makes a friend at the GED classes in Minitoy (Teresa Sánchez), a gregarious fellow maid on a different floor who regular asks for help and favours which is reciprocated in one particularly awkward instance. This is pretty much all we are given to gauge about Minitoy, the archetypal lively presence in the room, always trying to make Eve smile, not registering how her quiet demeanour is her default setting.

The tutor at the GED class give Eve a copy of the novel Jonathon Livingston Seagull to read, which I’ve not read myself but judging by the effect it has on Eve, I assume it is a tale which in some way parallels her situation. In one beguiling scene, after reading a chapter, Eve puts on a saucy show for a window cleaner who is always where she is, serving as a bold act of liberation and assuming control for herself.

Otherwise, the daily routine involves the folding of sheets, cleaning of amenities, and replenishing of sundry items, which hardly sounds like invigorating viewing, but Avilés has managed to make it engaging. The key to this is that no two rooms are the same – in one she finds her sinewy older male guest wrapped up in a pile of discarded sheets on the floor, in another, she is scrubbing unsightly bloodstains from the bath, the cause of which is open to speculation.

Salvation comes from an Argentinean woman who hires Eve to watch her baby son while she showers, creating an unusual paradox a guest are supposed to enjoy privacy in their rooms but here she is parading naked in front of Eve. But she is so impressed with how her son takes to Eve that she offers to employ her as her nanny, which would mean relocating to Argentina.

Much like a typical day for Eve, we see almost nothing of the outside world for 98- minutes, our only hint of it existing being the view from the windows and Eve’s regular phone calls home. We have to wait until the last few minutes of the film to see our first – and only – exterior shot, an enigmatic moment in which Eve seems to have reached some sort of epiphany.

Gabriela Cartol carries the film as Eve, presented to us as a plain, slightly dowdy, but earnest 24 year-old (though you’d probably think she was at lot older), oozing a down-to-earth charm that mesmerises with its naturalness. That everyone else around her is louder and more effusive simply allows her meek, taciturn individuality to shine brighter as a symbol of pathos and empathy.

The Chambermaid is a thoughtful and quietly poetic debut for Avilés, tapping into that rich vein of docudrama style filmmaking that speaks volumes without having to raise its voice. It may not be visually dynamic or showy but this isn’t necessary as its heart, authenticity and veracity is magnetic enough and palpably affecting.