Directors: Lauriane Escaffre / Yvo Muller (France), Year of Release: 2022
Maria has been working for 25 years as a housekeeper for Madame Margoteau, a rich old woman. When her employer dies, she suddenly finds herself out of work. When she applies for a cleaning job at the École des Beaux Arts, no-one is more surprized than Maria hersef when the distracted school/museum director offers her the job immediately. The building is labyrinthine and Maria constantly loses her direction, picking her way past the ancient Greek statues.
But that was then and this is now. Lessons are now led by a trendy lecturer with a waistcoat, fashionable glasses and tightly manicured facial hair. Modern art is now in vogue. Which makes it more awkward when it turns out that the carton of fat which Maria cleaned away on one of her first days was a key exhibit by a promising young Brazilian artist. The film has barely started, and I’m already wondering whether I’ve taken a wise decision to come this evening.
Shall we count the ways in which this throwaway (sic) scene is annoying? Firstly, the whole “Modern Art is all abstract shit that most people can’t understand” schtick was populist nonsense when it first appeared with Andy Warhol or probably even earlier. This is not to say that there aren’t any chancers in the modern art scene (I could never get the appeal of Damien Hirst, for instance), but this is just a cheap joke aimed at a Philistine audience.
Secondly, it isn’t even original. In 1986, a work of art by Joseph Beuys based on a grease stain was mopped up by a cleaner. The work had been valued at €400,000. Now that was funny. The clash between the pretensions of a real life celebrity artist and a poorly-paid cleaner probably working on a minimum wage, was a comment on art’s tendency to take itself too seriously. But what was funny was that it really happened. You can’t just steal the story and expect similar laughs.
The danger that this would merely be a film which was laughing at both modern art, and working class people who are too dumb to understand it, persists when Maria somehow befriends Naomie, one of the students. Maria is middle-aged and stuck in a loveless marriage. Naomie is bisexual and experimenting in polyamory. When Naomie asks Maria to help her hang a row of model vulvas at random distances, part of the cinema erupted in self-righteous laughter at Maria’s ignorance.
So far, so worrying. But the film does improve. Maria develops a genuine friendship with Naomie, in which neither of them looks down on the other. Both are shy and lacking in self-confidence, even if Naomie has more front and dresses more extravagantly. Maria helps Naomie with some of her more avant garde works (including one of a bridal dress leaking blood, in which Maria’s cleaning mop gets unwillingly entangled), while posing for some more conventional sketches.
Meanwhile, under Naomie’s influence, Maria starts to see that art is not just for the rich and educated. As well as appreciating the works, she also agrees to act as a life model – first for Naomie, then for the whole class. Telling her husband that she is taking on extra shifts at work, sitting in front of the students raises her self-confidence. Gradually the towel that she had wrapped tightly around her body starts to fall to the floor.
Meanwhile, Maria has been spending time with the school’s janitor Hubert. They first meet when she nearly walks into his office while he is dancing to rock and roll music. Hubert is overweight, but also elegantly light on his feet. As his choice of music shows, he belongs to Maria’s era, not to that of the students with their strange haircuts and pretentious language. It is Hubert who saves Maria from the fat carton disaster, and is always there as a rock onto which the restless Maria can cling.
One might also say that Hubert is a useful plot device to offer a sense of purpose to a woman who is finally finding, to quote the German subtitle, the art of starting again. And this is where we come to the biggest weakness of the film. There is barely a character who has a personality of their own, other than as a cliché required to push the plot along. Alongside Hubert there are Maria’s husband who is nice enough but no longer excites her and her estranged daughter.
A more interesting film would have given the daughter a little more dialogue than standing behind the chemists’ shop while her mother pushes past the other customers to speak at her. She is given an interesting back story – her father broke off all contact when she ran off with his best friend – but little is done with this story. We never hear from the daughter and don’t even see her new lover – they are merely there to make the plot seem more eventful.
The film is not without its moments. There is a brief scene shortly before the end when Maria hijacks a bicycle which has been presumably part of an installation, and pedals on as legs in primary colours move up and down. And, in a cinematic world, which is seemingly obsessed with the lives of the rich and powerful, Maria Träumt believes that we should hear the stories of cleaners too. The next step is to make these stories interesting and with some dramatic tension.
From pretty much the first scene, we know more or less what is going to happen, who are the good guys, and who are the pantomime villains. The characters are two-dimensional and utterly predictable. But I find it hard to hate on a film which is so good natured. While I wouldn’t actually recommend that you go and see it, it’s definitely not a terrible film. Put that one on the film poster.