The Women on the 6th Floor, veteran French writer/director Philippe Le Guay’s crowd-pleasing dramedy about a bourgeois man who breaks free of his upper-class constraints to join — locationally and emotionally — the maids living above him was a box office smash hit last year in France and Palace Films’ marquee summer release in Australia.

Set in Paris in the 1960s, during a period marked by an influx of Spanish immigration to France, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) finds a new life and a new lover. Le Guay, with a deftness of touch sure to draw the envy of many filmmakers, brings the audience closely along with him. I spoke with Le Guay, visiting from France, shortly before the film’s release.

The Women on the 6th Floor was a big hit in France, has generated a very positive response from critics and is now being released around the world, including Australia. What is it about the film that you think has connected with audiences? 

The theme is about a man who is getting free of his habits. His milieu. The conventional bourgeois milieu. I think every time there is a character who finds a way to freedom on the screen, the spectator identifies with them, and connects with their own life. Maybe they think “what kind of life am I living? Did I really choose my life? Do I really like the job I have?” And this kind of awakenness is the journey that makes the character in the film, the lead character played by Fabrice Luchini.

In that sense the story arc reminds me a little of the film American Beauty. 

It’s very strange you mentioned that because that is one of the favourite films that rests with me. Of course at the end of American Beauty the main character gets shot so it is a rather tragic ending for a film that is not tragic. It was full of comedy. And of course the way the character faces his wife and his daughter has something in common with my film.

The upper class protagonist in The Women on the 6th Floor, Jean-Louis, is very picky about his eggs. He makes a big point about. Was that just something frivolous? Also, how do you like your eggs?

I must confess that I never take eggs in the morning and very rarely take eggs. I found it was an interesting metaphor. He likes his eggs cooked in a certain way and we can feel that for many years this little desire was not fulfilled. That nobody really cares about him or cares about fixing him the right breakfast. The toaster is burnt out. The coffee is cold. The egg is over done. He doesn’t complain. He says well maybe once it will be nice to have nice eggs but it might never happen.

In many ways The Women on the 6th Floor feels like a very personal film. The characters are vivid and intimately drawn and it’s a closely knitted story. Was there any correlation between the film and your life?

The character of Jean-Louis is very much inspired by my own father. My father was a stockbroker, like the character in the film, and he had this kind of remoteness. He was very polite but at the same time quite distant. I always had the feeling there was some kind of space in his life that was empty. That could maybe have been filled by something else. But of course he never mentioned it. Fabrice doesn’t look at all like my father but I directed him in the way my father behaved. That is very intimate. I really care about the character. This bourgeois man is not particularly proud of being bourgeois. He doesn’t stand for his values and he has no authority. There are some guys who are so arrogant and so happy to be part of the dominant class. Have a banker, speak loudly, be full of their power. My character has nothing to do with that and that is why he is able to discover something new.

The film is based in a building with the bourgeois and the poor in the one physical space. The poor are stuffed in the roof and the rich live below them. Is that an accurate depiction of France in the 1960s? 

The nice thing about up and down is that it just happened that way in the architecture of Paris. If you ever go to Paris and look down the streets, you have a look at the buildings that have been built by the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century and you will notice that under the roofs there are these little maid rooms with no running water. No heating. It was part of the approach of society. So the architecture says everything already. I took inspiration from the way things are made. When you leave an upstairs apartment kitchen, you step into another world. It’s almost like that series The Twilight Zone. Of course my film is very realistic, it’s not science fiction, but the metaphor works that way.

And on the subject of metaphor, do the double meanings same apply to the Sixth Floor in the sense that everybody can perhaps have one inside themselves?

Yes, it means that everybody can have a space where you free yourself from the habits of your class, and your obligations that society wants you to fulfil.

In Australia, year after year, Australian-made films only receive a fraction of box office intake. We are drowned by overseas content. But in France the film industry is very different and very strong. Why do you think that is? 

It’s always difficult to make a film and always difficult to get people to watch it but in France we are very lucky. French people are very interested in French cinema but they are also very critical about French films. It’s the best sport in life — to say how much you hate French films. When you go to dinner with friends you always say rubbish things, terrible things about French cinema, but still people will go because it’s part of our culture. It’s not necessarily that we are proud of our film — that we are narcissistic and believe we are best. No, you say terrible things about French films but continue to see them.