Writer-director Amanda Sthers tries to serve up a light-hearted romcom in Madame, yet the film ultimately falls flat in its lacklustre storytelling and one-dimensional characters.
In Madame, a delightful Rossy de Palma plays Maria, a French maid who unexpectedly finds love outside her social class when she joins a high society occasion hosted by her wealthy American employers Bob (Harvey Keitel) and Anne (Toni Collette).
Out of superstition, Anne refuses to seat 13 people at her dinner party and coaxes a reluctant Maria to impersonate a family friend and join the group. In a Cinderella-esque twist, British art broker David (Michael Smiley) falls head over heels in love with her, under the assumption that she is a wealthy Spanish heiress keeping her identity under wraps. Their ensuing trysts only end up provoking Anne to jealousy, enraged that her maid might find true love while passion is sapping from her own marriage.
While the film tries to highlight the imbalance of class systems, it utilises blatant stereotypes and predictable events that leave little to the imagination. The classic draconian stepmother figure, the oppressed maid, and of course, the dashing Prince Charming.
The formulaic characterisations also make it difficult for the audience to emotionally engage with the onscreen characters, no matter which big name stars are playing them. Anne’s patronising attitude quickly becomes tiresome; it is as though her character exists merely to fulfil the antagonist’s position, and while we are made to pity her, it is difficult to feel as though she is a real character with real struggles.
By the time she is sitting in the car spying on the duo, while yet again complaining to her husband, her laments of “Could he be in love with her? Is it possible?” become irksome. Her husband’s reply of “Well, I admit it, she’s got a great ass” falls flat, one of many examples in which needless dialogue bogs down the film. The bland cinematography also does little to keep our attention. What stands out, however, is the set design and costumes: a vibrant and eclectic mix of French villas, charming dresses and dreamy boulevards that at least helps to sustain a visual interest.
Maria, on the other hand, with her crude jokes, endearing frankness and naïve simplicity, is perhaps the film’s saving grace. The most enjoyable moments of the film are her expressions of childlike excitement. In one notable scene, she holds a dance party with her colleagues in her attic room. The blaring music, drunk dancing and raucous cheers all lend themselves to a rowdy atmosphere embodying her exuberant, free-spirited self.
The audience naturally roots for her, and at the end, when class differences cruelly triumph over idealistic notions of love, one cannot help but feel crushed too. Yet, while this fairytale does not quite have the usual happy ending, it employs an empowering, albeit clichéd end. When Maria struts down the boulevard with her hair flitting in the wind, one senses a whiff of liberation. She is no longer that submissive maid, that obedient follower — she is her own Madame.
Madame premiered in Singapore at the French Film Festival 2017, held from Nov 9 – 19. The film’s extended promotional release by Shaw Theatres begins on Dec 7.