A haughty, privileged divorcée and her longtime housekeeper make a fascinatingly complex couple in “Live-in Maid,” an Argentinean drama about employer-servant relations and the deeper connections that sometimes form across the class chasm between domestic and boss. Multidimensional characters, adept storytelling and superb acting add up to a modest but potent chamber pleaser, as presented by first-time feature writer-director Jorge Gaggero.
Art-house fave Norma Aleandro plays Beba, a bourgeois Buenos Aires resident of a certain age who has been financially socked by divorce and Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis. Now selling cosmetics door-to-door to remain afloat, or at least to finance her beauty-shop visits and whisky habit, Beba hasn’t paid her maid of 30 years, Dora (Norma Argentina), for seven months. Conflicted but fed up, Dora quits.
Gaggero then follows each woman: Beba, whose material world further crumbles; and Dora, who is renovating her suburban house, which she shares with a boyfriend (Paul Panguinao) whose semi-laziness irks her. Although Beba treated Dora arrogantly and Dora remained guarded during their years together, each woman misses the other. Both act to erase the void, but on new terms reflecting their personal shifts.
Plotwise, the drama is thin, and certain elements could use more development.
But Gaggero, a former documentarian whose mode might be described as agreeable realism, more than compensates for such gaps by filling the picture with character nuance, psychological texture and social truth. He’s made an astute portrayal of upstairs-downstairs dynamics and, despite the low-keyness, a captivating domestic duet.
Using snippets of conversation, facial expressions and small moments, rather than overblown melodrama, to supply significant information, Gaggero creates multifaceted portraits. Thoughtless Beba has a generous quality, we learn. Dora’s tone in a phone conversation with Beba’s estranged daughter movingly conveys how deeply Dora cares about Beba’s family. Instead of getting preachy about economic inequality and the mentalities it creates, Gaggero subtly infuses such attitudes into every frame. Beba’s delivery of lines like “Dora, pour me a whisky” says it all.
Additional assets include, as you’d expect, Aleandro, who, while giving self-important Beba a comic theatrical tinge that seems better suited to Almodovar, skillfully makes her selfish character sympathetic without sentimentalizing her. Argentina, a former housekeeper with no prior professional acting experience, aces her demanding role. In close-up, both womenhave us wondering what their characters are thinking. Their vital, complicated faces stay with you.
three and a half stars
Starring Norma Aleandro, Norma Argentina, Paul Panguinao, Marcos Mundstock
Written and directed by Jorge Gaggero
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes