Lila Avilés’ debut feature begins like a thriller. In a room at the Hotel Presidente Intercontinental in Mexico City, Eve, la camarista, mechanically tidies detritus in a hurry; an automaton. We think we’re watching her daily routine until she peels back the bed sheets and gasps: a vague piece of flesh pokes out from the covers. Wow, I thought, I was expecting (knowing nothing about the film) a social-realist piece about a chambermaid, not a whodunit. But my momentary surprise was such; the body comes to grunting life and wearily stands to reveal itself as a dazed elderly man. Eve apologises, but is silently shooed away by the guest with a flapping of his hand as he tries to piece together how he got there.
This is what Eve’s day-to-day consists of: cleaning up after wealthy hotel guests who are often rude, drunk or ungrateful. An Argentinian guest one day asks Eve to look after her baby while she takes a shower—and requests that she return every day after that: “It’s good money,” she says, referring to the cash tip used to entice Eve. As always, Eve politely and silently obliges.
It soon becomes clear that 24 year-old Eve has a child at home—which is two hours across the city—who is in the care of a minder. She often stays late to ensure that every room on her floor (21) is cleaned to the hotel’s perfect standards (which by default have become her own). Eve may not love her job, but she’s the best at it, vigorously scrubbing every speck of dirt she comes across, methodically poofing the pillows and ironing creases from bed linen. And it is this work ethic that will ensure her the job she’s been vying for—a promotion to floor 42.
Avilés and co-writer Juan Carlos Marquéz present an introspective, enchanting young woman—portrayed graciously by Gabriela Cartol—whose desires we want to see come to fruition and whose setbacks leave us equally frustrated. But while the protagonist and world are both tremendously refreshing, the film’s progressive themes and criticisms would’ve perhaps hit harder if it's structure didn’t fall victim to formulae. The screenwriters suffer from the same issue that many first time filmmakers suffer from (perhaps along with a large portion of most films made today), which is not really knowing what to do with the last third of the film. Despite having juggled several subplots that all initially build on Eve’s story, the film struggles to pull together all the strings in a way that creates maximum emotional impact. For example, as well as the aforementioned goal of being promoted to the 42nd floor and extra work of looking after a woman’s baby, Eve is waiting for a red dress that has been promised to her from lost property, and she’s also taking out-of-hours classes in the lead up to an exam. These strings of plot are mostly resolved, but not in anyway that has an effect on Eve’s story as a whole. The classes are shut down, the Argentinian woman half-heartedly invites her to Buenos Aires (something Eve shows no interest in other than a smile) but then leaves without a word, and another employee (somebody she’s recently become close friends with) undeservedly receives the promotion last minute, which in turn leads her to giving away the red dress—now just a soured material object. Eve takes the elevator to the top floor and indulges herself in the luxury suite before ascending to the rooftop, where she stands with her eyes closed and her arms out, listening to the muffled sounds of the city. The camera tilts up, and all we see is the top half of Eve, and the sandy-blue sky of D.F.
This could be seen as a realist take on Eve’s story—most chambermaids work their asses off and get almost nothing in return… perhaps just a second hand memento or token, like the red dress she’s ‘gifted’. This could have worked, if only the filmmakers had taken it further. But the somewhat indulgent tragic ending, induced by the rapid, consecutive conclusion to each subplot, only highlights how contrived the structure of the film actually is—which is not innately a problem: cinema is contrived. But it is the job of the writers and directors to disguise this.
The visual style of the film is both brilliant and exhausting. The shallow depth of field and tight composition mirror Eve’s claustrophobia; we never leave the hotel. Even at the very end, when Eve walks out of the revolving doors (for the first time in the whole film) we stay inside as she falls out of focus. This, combined with the empty, lingering frames (which, like Carlos Reygadas’ recently-reviewed Nuestro Tiempo, feel like Antonioni) give a sense of cold transience and reflect the nonplace-ness that industrious hotels suffer from, despite their expensive facade presented by their interiors. While this works for most of the film, it begins to drag on the narrative in the final third, when choppier editing would’ve helped create some much-needed dramatic tension. Yet, Eve’s entrapment is illustrated brilliantly. The only moment of liberation she experiences is a scene in which she strips and masturbates in front of a crush that she’s been keeping at arm's length—a window cleaner of similar age, who watches her while dangling from the rooftop. For a short time she is free, but still separated from the boy and prohibited from physical contact by the transparent yet luxurious hotel window, a sound-proof piece of glass that keeps the polluted air from intoxicating the rich guests.
After the film I was struck by the lyrics of Edwyn Collins’ song A Girl Like You in which he sings “Too many protest singers / Not enough protest songs.” It describes the trend of both arthouse and mainstream films that tout progressive elements, but demonstrate the status quo creatively speaking. They protest with their subject matter, but not with their form. And while I support these films, and believe that they are definitely and importantly pushing the boundaries of cinema by telling the stories of the marginalised, and of those that may not otherwise have a voice, I can’t help but think they would be more poignant and better make their point if they were to stray from the standard shape.
— George Louis Bartlett