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Class Warfare

Tina Botková

The Chambermaid (2023)

This is the first lesbian film ever made in Slovakia. It is also the story of how class impacts our sexual choices, and also a packaged history of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is also a very beautiful and beautifully sad story about how one young woman’s life is decided by most of the people around her without it changing who she is one whit. As an ode to self-determination this is a marvelous one.

It's the 1910s; and Anka (Dana Droppová) is a 15-year-old bastard in a small Slovak farm village. When her beloved mother (director Mariana Čengel Solčanská, who also cowrote the script with Hana Lasicová) finally marries, to an unpleasant widower (Marko Igonda), Anka is packed off to Prague, where a position has been found for her as the most junior maid in a house owned by a Czech-speaking German family. The lord (Karel Dobrý) and lady (Zuzana Mauréry) of the house give Anka the once-over and put her immediately to work, under the guidance of Líza (Vica Kerekes), a kind redhead with big dreams of escaping her lot in life. In the house there’s also Kristina the cook (Anna Geislerová), Jancsi the coachman (Peter Nádasdi) and Štefan the horny gardener (Lukáš Pelč). The house has electricity in the main rooms, but no plumbing; and Líza’s first lesson for Anka is how to carry a chamberpot as if it smells of roses, because their employers must always feel as if they are better than their employees. As the years pass, Anka’s first duty in the morning always is to empty the night soil into the drain on the neighboring street.

In the house are also the lady’s deaf mother and the lord and lady’s three children, two unimportant younger sons and a daughter Anka’s age. Her name is Resi (Radka Caldová); and the first time she has Anka alone, she accuses her of stealing some jewelry and makes her strip down to prove her innocence. Once Anka is fully naked, Resi reveals the piece and dismisses her, smirking. Anka flees the room to sob in the hallway, clutching her clothes to her chest. But while the family might be inconsistent and often unkind, behind the scenes there’s terrific solidarity. Líza and Kristina both want Anka to be happy and are friendly and helpful; Štefan makes his interest felt but takes rejection without malice. The house is Anka’s entire world in Prague; we rarely see her going further than those drains. Of course the work of a chambermaid is so all-consuming it’s no surprise there’s little time to explore. On the other hand, it slowly becomes obvious that there’s something between Anka and Resi that neither of them can deny. Slowly Resi begins to rely on Anka; and slowly Anka realises that her feelings for Resi go beyond that of liking your employer.

It's no secret in the kitchen, and pretty soon the team are referring to “your Resi” when they mention her to Anka. The lack of judgment is a pleasing thing to see in a period piece and obviously a key reason why this was shown at BFI Flare. But a teenage daughter is valuable for one reason only; and the lord chooses for Resi’s husband an unpleasant man named Gustav (Cyril Dobrý) because he is his own favorite for a son-in-law; and his incompatibility with Resi herself doesn’t matter. And it’s not that Resi doesn’t care about her unhappy marriage, but Anka is her true love, so her relationship with a mere man is unimportant. Life never stands still, of course; and between war and children changes of every kind come to the house. And while Resi has her wealth and privilege, her fine clothes and opium pipes, Anka has only her sense of decency and her sense of herself; and the movie knows which outlook it prefers. This makes the film sound gloomy, which it is not, at least not entirely. It’s that it is knowing about how life never quite works out how you want it to, and how that disappointment can curdle and sour you, or how it can be accepted and cheerfully borne. The little scene with Anka and Štefan over the handkerchief distils this perfectly, both in its knowingness and its acceptance.

Cinematographer Ladislav Janošták does a terrific job of making the house feel both enormous and suffocating to reflect Anka’s understanding of the wider world. Ms. Kerekes as the chatty dreamer and Ms. Geislerová as the bitter wisewoman offer a subtle contrast to how women cope with disappointment and misunderstanding in a world made for men. But this is Ms. Droppová’s movie; and she carries it with ease. Her Anka learns to accept the limited space the world is willing to offer her without allowing that to alter her self. Her love for Resi is genuine and uncalculated; and the final plot twist is a demonstration of that love in a shockingly unusual form. (It also comes after an early sequence where Resi asks Anka an outrageous favor, which Anka does not hesitate to provide, involving investigation of a physical experience that is hilariously described at “bearable.”)

The subtitles don’t bring over the full impact of this movie, in that the languages spoken in the house are a mix of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, German and a small amount of French. The servants have come to Prague from across the empire and tend to speak to each other in their own native tongues, so Kristina talks to Anka in Czech, who replies in Slovak. Movies are finally embracing language the way people do in life, as a delightful melange, with subtitles providing comprehension, if not total understanding. But no subtitles are needed for Anka and Resi’s glee that Gustav might die in battle, or the quiet disappointment when several people realize their dreams won’t come true. This is a wonderful movie about how fulfilling it is to fulfil your heart’s desire, both physically and emotionally. Let’s hope it’s not long before there are many more similar Slovakian films.

Ms. Lasicová spoke at BFI Flare about her mother’s nanny, the real-life figure on whom Anka is modeled. She also explained that part of the reason the movie took nine years to make was that Slovak arts organizations took a long time to be convinced to finance a movie about women, including the specific note that the way sex with men is portrayed in the film made them feel bad. The world is changing, but it’s hard to fathom how many stories have been lost thanks to such limited imaginations.


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