One of the core social currencies of late capitalism is tempered invisibility. Workplace and community atomisation, as well as a dispiriting inclination to designate class based purely on culture and aesthetics, has made social divisions slippery and diffuse. But they remain constant and unyielding. The processes that produce this invisibilisation and the representative forms and behavioural practices they take can be surprisingly ghostly. They are often played out silently and ritualistically.
They cloud numerous interpersonal moments between workers and those being provided the services of their labour, and produce a range of emotions from the latter: paternalist petit-bourgeois guilt, through latent anxiety at having graduated up a rung in class society, to outright disregard and othering of the legitimacy of a class subordinates existence. Meanwhile, a sort of spectral deference is thrust upon the worker. They gather up the bracken of their class betters as they pass through in permanent transit, create the illusion of newness and maintain that comforting blankness for the next occupant. Similar processes are played out in workplaces everywhere, from the call centre to the warehouse. Myriad, endlessly repeated micro-interactions riddling our working, social and cultural lives. But few environments more ably demonstrate them through relationships of served and server like a hotel.
This is the setting for Lila Alves debut feature “The Chambermaid”, a film quietly assured dictatorially, but cumulatively, devastatingly impactful in it’s depiction of this particular subsection of alienation. It is often warmly funny and affectionate as it portrays the creation of distance and desire, but ceaseless in it’s observation of the manner in which economic advantage bleeds into social capital. It’s an able demonstration of the erasure of labour that makes affluence possible.
This chambermaid is Eve, played with a beautifully internalized balance of steeliness and vulnerability by Gabriela Cartol. If Eve has her existence acknowledged by anyone who is not either a fellow worker, or a worker in a non exploitative sphere (the teacher in the hotel’s adult educational program, for example) it is nearly always for some form of demand or exchange to be proposed. Even some colleagues, one eternally on the make with minor fast buck schemes to keep her own head above water, can’t avoid being sucked into the ebb and flow of the invisibilisation process. Some only seem to foreground her when personal or social gains can be made. Still, there are very real snatches of friendship and decency from her workmates, of the kind anyone who has worked in the hellscape of the modern labour force, material or immaterial, will recognise. They form the only fulcrum of collective joy possible under the majority of forms of working for a wage.
There are moments of genuine platonic communion here between workers, albeit muted and nearly always cut short. The mischievous moments of defiance away from the prying eyes of management that Eve spends with her colleague Minitoy are notable, but even these mild acts of resistance must be hidden and inversely invisibilised. But it’s also notable (and necessary) that these moments are never levered with scenes outside the workplace. At no point in the film does the setting move away from the hotel. We never meet nor make any further connections with Eve’s family or home life beyond the morsels of information she shares with her coworkers.
We are left only with phone calls. This distancing technique makes more intimate, tactile moments thrum with a powerful vitality. Eve undresses for an onlooking window cleaner who has previously had his increasingly obvious attempts at signalling interest rebuffed in slapstick style. It’s a scene that could have come off as yet another rote comment on the nature of voyeruistic detachment in the age of social media and hyperinformation, yet here it’s made into something sweet, shambling in it’s own way, but no less powerful for it. A later interaction with the cleaner, minus the physical barrier, but with the extra difficulties presented by following up the exhibitionist/voyeur dynamic within a context of socialized behavior and speech acts, isn’t quite as stirring.
Upon it’s release, many couldn’t resist the comparison with Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s much lauded, lustrous mining of his familial past. But whereas much of the focus on that film’s maid could feel uncomfortably like a celebration of submission, saved only by some saintly framing of a protagonist tragically entrapped by survival and aspiration, The Chambermaid’s mastery lies in it’s ability to mainline small moments of escape, possible avenues of transcendence beyond the workaday existence of survival into unexpectedly shimmering moments of possibility. It leverages them with routines and repetitions that seem to eternally precede the moment those carrying them out break down completely. In this sense, the films attitude to tension and release has far more in common with another obvious touchstone in this regard, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975)
Escape is always tangible. It’s terrain is tantalisingly mapped out but fenced off by responsibility and social hierarchy. Eve ascends to the rooftop of the hotel, finally breaking free of the inoffensive blankness of the corridors and rooms the upwardly mobile use as a canvas to paint the signifiers of their empty successes. Yet it’s as heartbreaking as it is heartening. Eve has dashed, livid, crestfallen from a lower floor after she is passed over for a promotion. Where Roma emphasizes grace, The Chambermaid is full of quiet, unfussy reads on post-capitalist desire, so that when the camera pans upward to the skies above her head as she hovers somewhere between anxiety attack and muted rage, we dream and ache with her.
Cinema is often described in painterly terms, whether in an abstract, thematic sense or in a more obvious reference to some lush cinematography or colour palette. The latter of these critical bedrocks tends to fill me with an instant suspicion, so guarded am I after decades of being underwhelmed by praise that mistakes prettiness for transcendence. I think some of the finest cinema of recent years could more accurately, and perhaps counter intuitively, be described as photographic. Not in a formal sense, not in the way that the camera catches closed off moments in time or frames them, but as a nod to the transitory as a set of possibilities left tragically unexplored. Alves film was partly inspired by Sophie Calle’s 1981 photo series Hotel, and while The Chambermaid shares that projects ability to locate profundity in the liminal space between the passing and the permanent, it never feels like an extended piece of video art tacked onto the end of a more satisfying exhibition.
The everyday repetitions and rituals of Eve’s labouring, set against the seemingly infinite, labyrinthine blankness of the hotel’s corridors and interiors, could be projected as a kind of blunt encounter between working class desire and the ostentatious insensitivity of it’s service users. In Alves hands we are reminded that there is a complex mystification at the heart of each and every interaction between labour and consumer under capital. Mystification is often muted by nature, and this is a film that might appear oblique or coy about it’s politics to those for whom class struggle is essentially a subcultural larping activity. But in Eve’s lowkey reclamation of colonised space -stealing a complimentary soap, folding flower heads into the middle of books* -Alves creates a space that is reflective and sombre, yes, but also playful and full of empowering potential.
I’m not making a value judgement on agit-prop here, by any means. As we begin to crawl our way out from the sorry debris piled on us by two decades of irony as the kneejerk impulse of postmodernity, explicit and unashamed earnestness in political cinema is a bulwark against preformative civility and liberal cowardice. But the overwhelming sense of alienation, not as a spark but as the baseline of human subjectivity under capital, is realised here without resorting to cheap dystopia or an emotional didactic. There is a recognition that no amount of drudgery can fully dampen human tenderness or curiosity.
Despite that, the film never flinches from portraying the totalising and complete neoliberalisation of everyday transactions, whether economic, emotional or physical. While Eve’s silent strength of character could easily dissipate into the glib, detached numbness of so many tired depictions of the ground down, the remarkable central performance from Catrol never frames her as tragic or without hope. Not during the aforementioned moment of rejection for promotion, nor the discontinuation of her key skills class, which is presented with such matter-of-factness as to have been an inevitability all along. That makes it all the more deadening and painful.
There’s a mystery to her depiction of the character, but this isn’t located in anything deliberate or cliche. It’s in a powerful sense that we are observing behaviour and interactions that are fundamentally true, a quality that can never be underestimated in cinema and one that can manifest as obviously and loudly as Brando’s Stanley Kowalski or as preternaturally internalised as Lily Gladstone’s extraordinary turn in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women.
Catrol’s Eve is a woman palpably refusing to accept her current economic conditions yet forced to subjugate herself to social ones each and every day, constantly looking towards betterment and freedom while trudging through the invisibilisation and disregard that she, like so many unfathomably powerful working class women before her have had to struggle against daily. She does so with neither capitulation nor self destructive reflexivity, and it’s utterly mesmeric.
*The more I think about this, the more I feel I may be remembering these moments inaccurately, or at least without as much specificity as they probably deserve in terms of their representation and poetry. Like many of my favourite films, I haven’t been quick to rewatch The Chambermaid since I first saw it in the cinema. Increasingly, and particularly since I stopped drinking alcohol, I often doubt my own memory, convinced my brain is retrospectively planting small but notable inaccuracies or even including entirely manufactured passages into certain scenes of films I’ve seen. I even fear this phenomena infests my everyday memories of the real world. As much as you are constantly told your mind will become clearer after the trauma of post-acute withdrawal, sometimes it can leave you feeling curiously unmoored.