The Maid
(Sebastàn Silva, Director)
by Megan Ratner

Winter 2009

Enmeshed in family life but always apart, maids operate in a shadow-world of great responsibility and no personal authority. The children grow up and move out; the parents develop and change, yet the maid remains apparently static, virtually housebound. In his second feature, The Maid, Chilean director and co-writer Sebastiàn Silva draws on his own memories of family domestic help, still quite common among the middle class in contemporary South America. Rural emigrants to the city, these women often begin in their late teens, tending to one family for decades. The film captures exactly the hived-off  separation and inadvertent intimacy of such a live-in servant. In their Sundance Festival double prizewinner, Silva and cowriter Pedro Peirano expose this peculiar normality and the shifting female  power that keeps it in precarious balance.  

The Maid opens on a tidy, seemingly deserted kitchen, as overlapping family voices from the adjoining dining room seep in. The film’s washed-out palette appears filtered through stale air. Slowly, the camera pans to the uniformed Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) on her forty-first birthday, eating alone at the stark kitchen table. Raising her wary eyes to stare directly into the camera, Saavedra wordlessly fixes Raquel’s identity as utterly merged with her job. The scene shifts to the lively, somewhat formal dinner table, where Signora Pilar (Claudia Celedón) rings the servant bell. Raquel stays put—an act not so much of insubordination as discomfort: Pilar uses a formal summons to bestow a birthday cake and gifts. Finally coaxed into the dining room, Saavedra’s guarded movements and vigilant, narrowed eyes convey a half-life shaped by more than twenty years of household servitude. The perfunctory ceremony, in the family’s space and at their convenience, underlines Raquel’s peculiar condition as both an intimate and an outsider.    

Pilar cedes the household to Raquel, including a number of maternal responsibilities. She uses the maid as a foil for the tensions with her two eldest children, dodging the boring, painful elements of parenting. (When the teenage Camila and Raquel tangle, Pilar beats a cowardly retreat from the room.) With child care another aspect of Raquel’s daily cooking and cleaning routine, there’s a wishful expectancy to her frequent avowals that she would be lost without the children, a bid for them to reciprocate in kind. But the eldest Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) voices what they all feel: Raquel is “just the maid,” at best, taken for granted, at worst, openly resented. Credulous and subservient, Raquel looks to Pilar for acceptance she will never get. Two fraught phone calls with Raquel’s off-screen mother hint at banishment from her own family, the script wisely avoiding any explanation. Yet her employers offer little solace or support, her role for them strictly defined by her position. Pilar’s attempts to understand her maid amount to little more than patronizing congeniality and occasional snooping. As Raquel verges on a moment of psychological collapse and physical exhaustion, her stunted development hampers her ability to change her circumstances.

Raquel often bears a strong resemblance to Edouard Degas’s washerwomen, particularly “The Laundress” and “A Woman Ironing.” Like Degas, Silva is less interested in sociology than psychology: he accumulates details to give a sense of the unformed woman—a kind of trapped animal—that lives inside of Raquel. A close-up of her head on a pillow suggests the female intensity of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti portraits, as well. These painterly references work as powerful visual shorthand for Raquel’s bottomless isolation: caught in an outmoded system, her existence seems more historical than real.

To Raquel’s dismay, her spate of headaches and dizziness prompt Pilar to bring in a helper, effectively shrinking Raquel’s tiny dominion. Though the house imprisons Raquel, it is also her fortress. The eager and obliging Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) so threatens Raquel that she dupes the new maid into accepting a grocery delivery, then strands her in the front yard, blithely running the vacuum to drown out the younger woman’s desperate pleas at the locked doors and windows. When Mercedes quits, Pilar brings in Sonia (Anita Reeves), a cynical, embittered lifer whose idea of solidarity is mutual hatred for employers. Hopping mad when Raquel resorts to her favorite lock-out ploy, Sonia somewhat comically claws her way in by climbing to the rooftop and over a wall, attacking Raquel and smashing the model galleon to which Mundo (Alejandro Goic), the feckless paterfamilias, has devoted a year of his life.

Hired after Raquel’s ultimate collapse from exhaustion, only Lucy (Mariana Loyola) defuses the anger by using the lock out as an opportunity to sun herself in the garden, provoking Raquel to shocked laughter. Unlike everyone else in the film, Lucy moves through the house fluidly, unperturbed by the spatial demarcations. Early on, she notes the small size of her room, already determined not to stay for long. “I would die here,” she tells Raquel, her sense of self completely independent of the family and the house. When Raquel locks her out, Lucy transgresses both spatially and sartorially—she enters the pool area for her own pleasure and unselfconsciously peels out of her uniform for a topless tan. It’s a pivotal little scene, both for Lucy’s daring and Raquel’s spontaneous laughter.

Silva uses both clothing and space to convey the subtleties of this deceptively straightforward living arrangement. For most of the film, Raquel remains encased in her unmistakable black-and-white uniform. The dress, more habit than garment, robs her of any shape, rendering her both matronly and sexless. Glimpsed for the first time in street clothes, Raquel is difficult to recognize—and seems so even to herself. In her longing to emulate Pilar, that is, to vicariously share in the breezy self-confidence Pilar evinces, Raquel rifles through her closet, noting the labels and then actively seeking out the boutiques Pilar frequents. When Raquel examines her birthday sweater in her room, after briefly assessing the color she scrutinizes the label and, angry and disappointed, tosses the sweater on the floor. When she later buys Lucy a birthday sweater from herself and the family, Pilar is surprised to realize that Raquel notices such distinctions and knows where to find these luxuries. Only under Lucy’s influence does Raquel begin to expand her identity beyond her job, using clothes to declare herself as a person.

Silva offers tantalizingly little in the way of exposition, using costume to fill in a great deal. Pilar favors tones (sand, beige, cream) rather than colors, her flimsy outfits at odds with her middle-aged face and body. Like Raquel, Pilar is a child-adult, her life full of privilege without responsibility. With her own children, she makes a show of her affection, drifting from room to room to offer goodnight benedictions. Though seen only twice, Pilar’s stolid and self-assured mother (Delfina Guzman) prefers upper-bourgeois silks and pearls, clothes that assure her demands will be met. Lucy, the most secure and self-possessed of all the characters, casually dresses like a college student. She keeps to her own clothes on the first day of work, reluctantly zipping herself into the uniform at Pilar’s gentle request. The merely tolerated uniform gives her response to Raquel’s locking out more punch, her nudity an exuberant contrast to the baby-blue-and-white uniform.

Silva uses spatial disorientation—he never shows the house entire from the inside or out—both to create quotidian tension and to keep the audience unsettled. The truncated views reflect Raquel’s dulled senses, boxed-in by the rooms she cleans but cannot inhabit, confined by the walls and baffles of the surrounding garden. She has no privacy, her little room invaded by Camila in plain view or by Pilar on her day off. She’s tethered there, her circuit determined and established. Silva’s feel for the odd-yet-stultifying drudgery of housework has certain affinities with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Like Akerman, he observes mundane actions well—so much is revealed, for example, by Raquel’s aggressive vacuuming. Her fear of being replaced is a fear of surrendering that little turf, of being extinguished. Even the model galleon that claims every spare moment of Mundo’s attention becomes an echo both of the colonial tradition upheld by the family in employing Raquel and of her miniaturized, bottled-up life.

Lucy dissolves the established spatial divisions, confidently and assuredly moving through the house. Calling out to Raquel through their shared bedroom wall as they watch television, she defies the convent-cell atmosphere of their tiny quarters. Boundaries become permeable and even disappear when she brings Raquel along to celebrate Christmas with her family, removing her from the house altogether.

Silva uses music and sound to further define space. Scoring much of the film with ambient, domestic sounds, his few music cues become potent demarcations, significant of separation even if the characters’ physical location remains unchanged. Bellowing a pop song in the shower, Lucy declares her autonomy, not to mention her pleasure. Later, as she and Raquel bus out to Lucy’s family, their shared earphones make a self-defined cocoon of their two seats.

The Maid is a study in female power. Initially, Raquel can control only through refusal, exclusion (locking out her perceived rivals), and withholding (hoarding the children’s treats in a duffle under her bed, for example, or scratching out their faces in her collection of family snapshots). Pilar, by contrast, wafts through the house, deluded into seeing herself as benevolent and kind, although she lacks both her mother’s assurance and her daughter Camila’s honesty. As her mother and daughter do not, Pilar needs to be liked.

In scenes such as those when Raquel delivers the daily breakfast in bed to Mundo and Pilar, Silva establishes a sexual undertow more potent for remaining submerged. Raquel’s strong tie to Lucy and her affection for Pilar do not feel overtly sexual, yet the relationships hint at Raquel’s awareness that she has missed out on an essential part of life with which both these women are familiar. Raquel ascribes her headaches to “getting older,” which, along with her collapses, make for a traditional form of female distress, even a kind of hysteria. Upon Lucy’s arrival, Camila serves the new maid a glass of water, signaling a shift in power. Lucy resists identifying herself with her job and, crucially, she cultivates Raquel as a friend. Through her, Raquel begins to see herself as a peer, as an adult.

In Silva’s bravest and most intelligent choice, the final sequence offers a small, parallel film rather than a conclusion. Lucy has left; Raquel remains with the family. Shyly following her friend’s lead, Raquel uses some of her free time to run. Saavedra transforms the act of jogging into an awakening. Silva shoots the scene without dialog, only an extended music cue. Unlike Raquel’s earlier furtive excursions from the house, on this first nighttime jog, she confidently leaves it behind. Separated both by location and sound, a nervous, giddy Raquel listens to her (newly acquired?) CD player as she runs. Softening her face, Saavedra releases the beauty kept so deftly in check. Her jogging neither rescues nor redeems Raquel, but it does provide her with some tiny degree of agency and privacy. Like Claire Denis’s frenetic coda to Beau Travail, Silva’s finale transforms The Maid from well-observed realism to astute, undogmatic social commentary.