Dora (Norma Argentina) has been Beba’s maid for 30 years, and, man, does it show. So many decades of Beba’s casual condescension and terse commands are taking their toll, and when Beba brusquely orders Dora to fix her a drink, you can almost hear the maid snap, “Fix your own damn Scotch.” But she doesn’t say a word. She pours the liquor, mouth clamped shut, even though her sharp, clanging movements betray frustration and desperation. In Live In Maid discretion is everything.
Director Jorge Gaggero has made a film about the tensions between two Argentine women of different economic classes that is to women’s pictures by the likes of Cukor and Almodóvar what The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is to gangster films or The Conversation is to espionage thrillers—a superior example of restraint in harmonious proportion to ambition. Critics and moviegoers will describe Live-In Maid as a “little” picture, but in soul it is roughly the size of Transformers.
The plot is classically simple: Rich Beba (Norma Aleandro) is falling on hard times during one of Argentina’s infamous economic catastrophes. She can’t afford to pay Dora her wages anymore, but does her best to keep up appearances, hocking some of her valuables at the pawn shop and making empty promises to settle her debt soon enough. Dora has had it. She starts plotting her escape after suffering such indignities as having to pay for the disinfectant spray she uses to clean Beba’s house and serving as a live conversation piece for Beba’s rich-bitch party guests. You get the sense that Dora’s used to putting up with just about anything, so long as she got paid. Beba is counting on some kind of bond and understanding between them to carry Dora through this turbulent time. Dora is probably thinking, “What friendship?” They share anxiety over money, aging and an unspoken longing to re-connect with Beba’s estranged, offscreen (and presumably, scandalously, lesbian) daughter, but economic realties are only pushing them further apart.
The beauty of Live-In Maid is how it induces us to read these womens’ minds. Graggero is an action director. No, Beba and Dora don’t end up fist fighting on a rooftop, but Gragerro’s storytelling is propulsive and nimble enough for an actioner. Almost every time Beba leaves the apartment to face the unforgiving outside world, Graggero jolts us with the sudden blast of light and ambient urban noise. His camera lopes along with Beba on her humiliating march to scrounge for money. And it is just about literally a march: Beba’s crisp footsteps, strobing slightly (from a presumably fast shutter speed) might as well be those of the Nazis at the beginning of Army of Shadows. At first, she’s that intimidating, but soon enough we see that her imperious bearing is sheer, flailing terror. Beba is about to lose everything, and the only person she can turn to, Dora, can’t afford to stay by her side.
Gragerro’s sensitivity and simplicty reach an operatic peak in the scene where Dora brings Beba a birthday cake. He puts natural sunlight, a tiny birthday cake with one candle and Norma Argentina’s kind round face to sublime use.
My screening companion said of her own Argentine friends, “They are very proud people—but good, decent people. It’s the pride that makes them suffer even worse during economic troubles.” Graggero’s film is all about this phenomenon: a proud, even vain and self-absorbed rich woman who is actually just lonely and afraid; a poor woman whose resentments conceal a wealth of empathy for her boss. No, put thoughts of Jessica Tandy going, “Hoke, you’re my best friend,” out of your mind. Live-In Maid makes such openhearted declarations in pictures and sounds as discreet as a put-upon maid who knows exactly when to speak.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.