In our Four Films series we pick a theme and examine four different kinds of films on that theme. This week, Maids – stories about female domestic servants and their complex relationships with their employers.
The movies have depicted maids in a variety situations and genres, from romantic comedies (Maid in Manhattan) to lesbian crime dramas (Murderous Maids). In one way or another, all films that feature maids as their protagonist are about class structure, but the following films take that subject and address it in different ways.
The Housemaid (1960)
Kim Ki-young’s toxic melodrama The Housemaid is the first in the director’s Housemaid trilogy, followed by Woman of Fire and The Woman of Fire ’82. Though considered a trilogy, the sequels unashamedly and deliberately rehash the same plot as the first film, with only few plot points and stylistic changes made. The story tells of a deceptive maid who sneaks her way into the lives of a well-to-do household, with the intention of seducing the husband and breaking apart the family. This is an incredibly accomplished and thrilling film, which still manages to shock even by today’s standards. Aside from the Im Sang-soo remake in 2010, which interestingly paints a more sympathetic portrait of the maid, I see no reason to watch any other version of this story than this one.
Black Girl (1966)
This devastatingly powerful drama depicts a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who moves from Dakar, Senegal to the South of France, where she begins work as a maid for a bourgeois couple. Rather than the luxury lifestyle she was expecting, she is harshly treated by her new employers and this unsurprisingly ends in tragic circumstances. This first feature from Senegalese writer turned director Ousmane Sembène is considered to be one of the first internationally acclaimed movies to be made by an African filmmaker. In just 65 short minutes, Black Girl tells an incredibly haunting story that explores racism and the ever-lasting impact of colonialism.
Fireworks Wednesday (2006)
There is no contemporary filmmaker capable of handling complex moral situations as astutely as the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and this is evidently demonstrated in his 2006 film Fireworks Wednesday. When Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti) takes a temp job as a maid for a married couple, she unexpectedly becomes embroiled in a domestic dispute which ultimately puts her in a complicated ethical quandary. Like with many of director’s films, this social drama manages to create tension and nuance without the need for sensationalism, and it’s bolstered by a wonderful performance from Alidoosti, who plays her character with playfulness and an oblivious charm. A modern masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmaking nations.
The Maid (2009)
We end this feature with the award-winning The Maid from Chilean director Sebastián Silva. Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) is a loyal maid who has been serving the same household for 23 years, but when the family decides to hire another maid to help with the ever-increasing chores, she fears her position might be under threat. This awkwardly funny comedy-drama from South America is a delightfully twisted gem, with a bleak, poignant undercurrent. Although the maid’s childish antics could easily come across as frustrating, Saavedra does a remarkable job in making her character seem sympathetic, and it all culminates in a surprisingly moving ending.