In two of the many fine 2009 films that didn’t earn Academy Award attention this year, a pair of women give two performances that make Sandra Bullock’s serviceable, Southern-fried turn as Leigh Anne Tuohy in “The Blind Side” look damn puny. The pretty pat film surrounding that Oscar-winning performance has, so far, earned $252,692,000 in the United States.
The first of the ignored complex performances is in Martin Provost’s “Séraphine,” featuring French actor Yolande Moreau as the early-20th-century artist Séraphine Louis. Moreau is astonishing as she reveals the slipping into madness of this compelling visual artist. Moreau has won six performance awards, including a Cesar ” the French version of the Oscar. U.S. box office to date: $882,506.
The second, the performance of Catalina Saavedra in Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid,” is the focus of this review. Saavedra has won 10 international awards. U.S. earnings are $553,909.
“The Maid,” which screens Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is the story of a housemaid in the home of a wealthy Chilean family, giving us a Latin-American take on the world of upstairs/downstairs. While Raquel (Saavedra) has served the family for 23 years, she isn’t really part of it. If there’s one thing this film makes clear, it’s that as much as the employer wants the employee to think she or he is a family member, it cannot ever really be so.
What makes Saavedra’s performance not only emotionally gripping, but also technically impressive is Raquel’s progression as a character. As she takes petty revenge against the teenage daughter of the house and engages in full-fledged battles with a series of second maids the family hires to ease her workload, we recoil. She is clearly the protagonist, but Raquel is not a nice woman. She defines herself as the world defines her: by her role as maid. It’s all she’s got, and she’s ready to defend her pitifully small turf by any means necessary.
As the plot presents unexpected twists, we sigh with relief as we can explain and, therefore, forgive Raquel’s awful behavior. To relax is a mistake, however, as the clearing of the ominous clouds for a few rays of sunshine isn’t yet the whole story.
Each time we think we have figured out who Raquel is and what motivates her, we find we’re only kind of right. She is a complex woman with a full range of all-too-human causes of behavior: illness, loneliness, jealousy, fear, love, desire. The mistake ” which this film clearly points out ” is to assume that a simple maid is a simple person.
You’ll laugh at the often dark humor, shake your head in disgust, ache with pity and empathize with the full range of emotions Saavedra uses to paint this fascinating and, ultimately, sympathetic, even admirable, character. Again to compare: From frame one, Bullock’s Tuohy is all she will be.
A third female performance this year ” Meryl Streep’s as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” ” was undeniably great. Saavedra’s is greater. Julia seems real; Raquel is so real she seems the focus of a documentary, rather than a character in a fiction film. “Kathryn Jenson White