Fabrice Luchini has one of the rarest gifts of all. In his performances, where comedy is concerned, he is able to add a hint of tragedy, and this mixture of charm, wit, and the more serious aspects of being human goes right back to Chaplin. Still, the details of this, or the way Luchini works, is something new and, of course, all his own. Often, as someone once said about the stories of Raymond Carver, Luchini’s performances ignite about a minute after the credits roll.
The question is this. How does Luchini produce such effects? The only way to consider this, I think, is to look at specifics.
The films that have this quality, that humor with a whiff of tragedy, are Women Of The Sixth Floor, Intimate Strangers, Courted, and The Mystery of Henri Pick. But of these, The Women Of The Sixth Floor has the most obvious example of this texture, this mixture of more than one tone.
The Women Of The Sixth Floor is the story of Jean-Louis Joubert and his confrontation with a young woman from Spain, Maria Gonzales (beautifully played by Natalia Verbeke). Of course, the depths of this drama have to do with Jean-Louis awareness of the sterility of the Parisian Bourgeoisie.
Jean-Louis is a stock broker, or an investment manager of some sort. He is married to a woman, Suzanne Joubert, beautifully played by Sandrine Kiberlain, who is also is able to produce this whiff of tragedy, as here and in Mademoiselle Chambon. The maid who works for this couple, and who has devoted her life to them, quits in an oddly intimate argument with Suzanne.
The replacement is Maria. She is lovely, vital, proud, and completely charming.
The beauty of the script and Luchini’s role is the advancement of his awareness of the vitality of some other way of living and of his attraction to Maria. This advancement is a sort of wink between Luchini, the director, and the viewer. We know what is going on, Luchini knows what is going on, but it is never mentioned.
Luchini brings to this role a combination of anxiety and uptightness, an attempt to be a stern, upstanding member of the bourgeoisie, and his obvious discomfort, uncertainty and hunger for the genuine.
And how is this done?
It begins with an egg. When Marie first comes to the apartment, for a trial, Jean-Louis tells her that his boiled egg must be done precisely three and a half minutes. He tells her that if his egg isn’t right, his day is spoiled.
She says, “Ah, yes, in Spain we have superstitions, too.”
Here, Luchini begins. His expression is complicated, at once attempting firmness, but showing a kind of dissonance in not being able to admit that this busines with the egg is a little nutty.
And we see him trying to resolve this conflict when it comes time to negotiate a salary with Maria after she has been hired. She asks for four hundred francs. Jean-Louis is amazed and says that two hundred and fifty is fine for anyone without references (Maria is newly arrived in Paris from Spain). She insists on four hundred.
You can see the cracks beginning to form in this man’s life when he says to her, “I am known as a tough negotiator.” And, you can see he is negotiating with himself. He resolves this by saying that
Maria will get the 400, but she will pretend to Suzanne that she is only getting 250.
All of this is done with Luchini almost smiling, raising his brows with surprise, at once amazed and anxious.
But the heart of this performance is the advancement of his attraction to Maria. And it is not just to her, since it is obvious that there is more going on with her than just infatuation.
The real heart of this begins when Jean-Louis says to Maria, “Buenos Dias.” He does this with a small smile of satisfaction. Then, as he tries to speak more Spanish (which becomes a kind of code for awakening) we have a perfect scene for Luchini.
He has practiced, in Spanish, the words, “I like ham.”
Maria laughs and says that the J is harder. She stands in front of him, takes his hand and puts it on his neck and pronounces a hard “J.” Their faces are opposite one another. Luchini is at once vulnerable, anxious and attracted.
That whiff of tragedy comes in here, in that while all of this is funny, the fact that his man’s life is coming unglued is right there.
And, of course, this progresses. Maria lives on the Sixth floor with other women from Spain who work in the building, and Jean-Louis becomes more friendly with them, more delighted with spending time with them, and, by the way, understanding their lives (one of the first things he does is to have the toilet upstairs fixed…it has been clogged up). This scene, looking at the clogged toilet is vintage Luchini. He is at once appalled, amazed and vulnerable as he looks in at this mess.
As his attachment to Maria and his pleasure in the women of the sixth floor grows, so the cracks in Jean-Louis’ life show. Luchini plays this with a growing certainty, but with a variety of warm, good cheer. It is this contradiction, the life coming unglued and the good cheer that make his performance so compelling.
One of the great scenes in this movie takes place in Jean-Louis’s office at the brokerage. He has talked to the women on the sixth floor about how to handle their money, which they keep in drawers and under the bed, and he convinces them to bring it to the brokerage house.
This is one of those funny, and yet serious moments. The expressions on the rigid French money managers when Luchini brings in ten or so Spanish women with their bundles of money to open an account is not to be missed. Funny yet biting.
Just as there are other bits of social commentary. In a scene at a cocktail party where a woman dismisses how hard it is to use a mop all day, Luchini, with a more serious aspect says, “Try it.”
The constant mixing of anxiety, amazement and good humor grows throughout, and after the evitable happens, that Jean-Louis gets involved with Maria, who departs for Spain without telling him, the tragic aspect of Jean-Louis’ life is beautifully played.
He sees that Maria’s bedroom on the six floor is empty. He turns to the other Spanish women who are there and says, “You didn’t tell me that she was going? I thought you were my friends.”
The combination of dismay and genuine emotion is vintage Luchini.
The essential quality Luchini brings to these movies is anxiety, surprise, and amazement, and, as I say, mixed in with that is the tragic element, which makes these performances absolutely haunting.
We are left with empathy and, of course, the illumination of the interior life of someone who is, for complicated social reasons, coming to terms with having been confined.This is the best of what good movies do, and by that I mean we have the sense of knowing other human beings and of understanding them.