The Chambermaid12 July, 2019
Lila Aviles’ debut film The Chambermaid (La Camarista) starts out strongly by introducing a quiet, mousy Eve that dutifully cleans, scrubs and organizes one messy luxurious hotel room after another. Immediately, the viewer feels like one is peering into the protagonist’s mundane work routine, as if observing without her knowledge or permission. This sensation may appear to be intrusive or even boring at first. How interesting can the life of a hotel maid be, after all? But one gets the feeling that due to Eve’s stoic nature, she wouldn’t mind us watching her unfolding working life. And, surprisingly, we are delighted to learn just how alive and full Eve’s inner life is, despite how dull her external reality seems at first glance.
Curiosity drives Eve’s cleaning routine. The way she enters each room and carefully inspects it along with the items left by guests is probably akin to how an anthropologist goes about exploring a newly excavated site. Eve picks up each belonging and slowly examines it, as if she’s never seen that particular thing before, even if it’s a book. That child-like wonder in her eyes is warm and lovely, and makes the audience forget that she’s there to do hard menial labor work. Eve’s first order of business is to go through the trash to see if any treasures have been left behind and if so, she promptly stores them in her pocket to keep as special souvenirs and continues with her meticulous cleaning.
The Chambermaid explores how our objects and belongings define us. Every time Eve encounters an item, she analyzes it with such Zen-like attention and intensity. It’s clear she’s trying to imagine the foreign lives of the wealthy guests staying at the high-end hotel she works for. There is a guest who is a photographer and Eve tries hard to make sense of the analog photographs left in the room. This theme is based on conceptual artist and photographer Sophie Calle’s book L’Hotel, a project for which Calle worked as a maid in a Venice hotel and took photographs of the guests’ personal possessions to try to understand their behavior and personality. In a statement, Aviles talks about this notion and says, “I liked that feeling of voyeurism, imagining the lives of others from the remains and the absence.”
Aside from working arduous hours, we learn Eve is full of dreams and hopes, even if they seem modest. She wants a beautiful red dress left behind by a guest. Eve would like a promotion to work in the 42nd executive suites floor so she enrolls in the hotel’s adult education program to advance her chances. Her teacher lends her a book and it’s obvious she enjoys the reading material as much as she enjoys learning in class. She also engages in a flirtatious game with a window washer that culminates in a peculiar way.
Despite Eve’s intimate fantasizing, the film’s minimal and austere aesthetic reminds viewers of the stark reality Eve actually inhabits. She works day in day out for a luxury hotel full of capricious rich guests that want what they want, and want it now with little to no consideration for Eve the person. Some guests demand towels and shampoo daily while ignoring Eve, others need her to care for their infant child, while others need her to operate the elevator during Shabbat. Meanwhile, Eve doesn’t have running water at home and she barely spends time with her 4-year-old son Ruben since she spends the majority of her time at work, or commuting two hours to and fro.
Aviles states that the hotel is the other main character. An imposing, impersonal, claustrophobic character that acts as a high-class prison for working-class Eve. The entirety of the movie is set inside the glass and concrete building and we only get glimpses of the outside world through the windows and the final scene. The Chambermaid is a great analogy for modern Mexican and Latin American society – showcasing the severe disparity between the leisurely lifestyles of the affluent guests and the poor staff working ungodly hours to support and provide basic necessities for their families.
By viewing the world through Eve’s lens for nearly two hours, Aviles invites us to step into the shoes of an almost invisible cohort of people – the working class. The people that clean our tables at restaurants, that care for our children, that maintain our lawns. The sensitive and empathetic portrayal of Eve serves to humanize the often unseen and overlooked working masses. As the daughter of incredibly hard-working and resilient Mexican parents, seeing Eve go about her day with such grace and poise despite day-to-day struggles was touching and helped envision (and relate to) my parents’ manual labor working lives.
Hopefully other viewers have a similar experience. The Chambermaid gently but powerfully reminds us that if we’re watching the film, we likely possess a degree of privilege that Eve and her colleagues are not privy to. Eve’s coworkers are bona fide hustlers, trying to make extra cash by selling tupperware, lotions and toys on the job. Anything to make some extra money and provide for the family.
But Aviles’ debut isn’t just about the struggles of the working class, it is also about the relationships and social dynamics that ensue at the hotel. Between staff and amid staff and guests. Eve is initially timid and takes a while to open up and form true friendships with her coworkers but we see her grow in this domain. She also forms an unexpected bond with a chatty Argentinian mom who needs help with her newborn. Initially, the film’s documentary-like qualities portray Eve’s life as monotonous. And it is, but only to a certain extent. Eve’s life is richer and deeper than a lot of the guests’ shallow interiors. By the end of the film, Eve has experienced enough to grow braver and more courageous to step outside her daydreaming and face the concrete, and oftentimes harsh, world outside the hotel’s walls.
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