Rating: 4 / 5
Wealthy American hostess Anne (Toni Collette) is hosting a dinner party in their Paris home with husband Bob (Harvey Keitel), but the unexpected arrival of Bob’s son from his first marriage, Steven (Tom Hughes), means 13 guests at the table, and our superstitious hostess simply can’t abide that.
So what to do? Being wealthy means having many staff in classic black and white uniforms, so Anne insists that their long-term Spanish maid Maria (Rossy de Palma) dons one of Anne’s dresses and becomes the 14th guest.
The scene is set for mayhem and romantic complications, so hang on for a very funny ride, with a few serious points being made along the way.
Control freak Anne gives Maria strict rules about not eating much, not drinking much and not talking much. But she can’t factor in that the British art broker David (Michael Smiley) who is seated next to Maria, finds her enchanting, although he assumes that she is secretive about her background because she is a wealthy heiress, and has no idea that she is the family maid.
A romance ensues between Maria and David, much to the ire of Anne, who is soon revealed as a deeply insecure woman with a passionless marriage and a tendency to bulimia.
What is fascinating about the two female leads is the contrast between their looks and character. Anne is stick-thin and glamorous, with plenty of beautiful designer outfits and jewellery. Maria is no classic beauty, being tall with curves, an unmissable profile and a large mouth. But she is beautiful, both in character and in the way she presents herself, showing the more obviously attractive Anne as pallid and boring.
Over the course of the film we see both Bob and Anne search for fulfilment outside their marriage, which they don’t really find. Meanwhile, Maria is thrilled with her mature romance with David.
However, this is not a fairy story and we don’t have a classically happy ending, but we do have a rather satisfying one, where Maria escapes from the downtrodden maid’s life that Anne has kept her in.
An egalitarian Australian audience will bristle at the arrogant and dismissive way Anne treats her staff, and will no doubt cheer at the ending.
The normally likeable Collette does a fine job convincing us of her selfish and emotionally manipulative character, while Keitel brings a light touch to Bob, with some lovely dashes of humour. Hughes’ Steven is a well-drawn and witty portrayal of a slightly cynical but acute observer of his father’s generation, while Smiley is a convincing English gentleman who thinks he has found his princess.
But the film belongs to de Palma as Maria. Her unusual looks, vibrant persona and excellent comic timing simply light up the screen. This is writer-director Amanda Sthers’ debut English language film, and her script is beautifully written with a light touch. That’s what makes this rom-com work delightfully where others would fail.
Highlight: standout performance from Rossy de Palma
Red flag: Occasional coarse language, nudity, adult themes