Eight years ago, self-taught Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés came across a photography book by visual artist Sophie Calle titled “Hotel.” It featured images of the garbage and objects guests left behind at a hotel in Venice, Italy. From these traces of absence, Avilés realized she could construct a profile of the person who once stayed there.
As Avilés considered the people who enter these private spaces, collect the remnants of their lives, and fix them up for the next occupant, these ingredients became the basis for a stage play — and that, in turn, gave way to the screenplay for her first feature, “The Chambermaid,” which she co-wrote with Juan Carlos Marquéz.
The captivating film is now Mexico’s Oscar contender in the newly renamed Best International Feature Film category, after premiering at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival followed by an extensive, globe-trekking festival run. Picked up by Kino Lorber, “The Chambermaid” opened in U.S. theaters over the summer and earned a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“The Chambermaid” centers around Eve (Gabriela Cartol), who labors away at an opulent hotel in the Mexican capital. She has a son she doesn’t see as often as she’d like, works towards an education in between shifts, and harbors dreams that extend far beyond her professional routine. There’s a profound sense of dignity that marks her every move and interaction, but it’s the layers within her that inject the drama with an emotional weight: Far more than a passive observer, she is a woman with agency determined to make the most of her surroundings.
Looking back on that progress during a recent phone interview from Mexico City, Avilés said she was surprised at how the story came together in piecemeal. “That’s the beauty of the creative process,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “How something so basic can serve as inspiration to then begin digging to find your own vision.”
Avilés appeared in commercials as a child, studied dramatic arts and became a mother at a young age. All of these experiences fed her insight into a character filled with ambition while coping with her limited resources. “Cinema is a mirror to observe others and then observe oneself again,” she said. “What we want is to see ourselves in others, and this movie is a door to my life and to say a little about who I am. Not that I am exactly like the character, but my worldview is there.”
In exploring the chambermaids’ scrupulous labor, Avilés said she found fascinating parallels to her upbringing with a mother who was addicted to cleanliness. “Even to make a bed there’s a certain rigor,” the filmmaker said. Cartol’s performance injects “The Chambermaid” with a welcome blend of joy, sensuality, and even flashes of anger. Avilés‘ had at first envisioned Eve as a much older woman before seeing the potential of Cartol’s petite frame.
The actress said that her small build often dictated the jobs that come her way, but has learned to make the most of those opportunities; with “The Chambermaid,” she was given the chance to expand her reach. “Many times in fiction, you come across characters that are not real,” Cartol said. “They are missing a certain humanity. But Eve, for me, had that.”
Avilés said her naturalistic filmmaking was inspired in part by John Cassavetes, a reference point she aimed to emulate when she received a film education at Mexico City’s Cineteca Nacional. It was there that her film professors included a range of international auteurs, the likes of Aki Kaurismäki, Lucrecia Martel, and Roy Andersson.
For Avilés, “there’s something about Mexico and in the DNA of Mexicans that makes cinema speak to us.” That’s how she rationalizes the inevitable comparisons between her movie and Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning “Roma,” which represented the country at the Academy Awards last year and won.
“They are two very different movies, but they share an essential theme, which is to look at a reality that’s quintessentially Latin American and very Mexican,” she said, referencing the unseen women at the forefront of both pictures, both from lower working-class backgrounds. However, distinctions between “The Chambermaid” and “Roma” run deep, as much in form as in tone, so for the Avilés the only aspect that truly unites them is their home country. Nevertheless, Cartol added, “I do believe ‘Roma’ benefited us, because ‘Roma’ was exposed before our movie doors were opened for us. In that sense we have to thank Mr. Cuarón.”
The director said she hoped her movie, made on a shoestring relative to the resources allocated to “Roma” from Netflix and Participant Media, was appreciated for more than the resourcefulness of its production. “Classifying films as small or large is like saying a bee isn’t as important as an elephant or a rhinoceros,” she said. “What’s important is what the film is and not its size or its genre.”
Cartol, whose varied life experiences include attending high school in England and working as a hostess at a hotel in her native Acapulco, was drawn her character’s efforts to attain a dazzling garment, a token of success in the form of a red dress she tracks down. It moved the talented actress to consider what her own greatest ambition might be. “It turned out that my red dress was actually ‘The Chambermaid,’ the greatest role of my career so far,” she said. “I keep on asking myself, ‘What’s my next red dress?'”