Though the title refers to nurse maids, and that is indeed a major theme in this film, the story of the nurse maid in question is the essence of the film. In focusing on her life and times, the customs, inventions and issues back then become a bewitching history lesson.
The title character becomes a nurse maid as a way out of many problems country women had back then. Once in the city, she finds out that there are even more challenges waiting for her there. She must not only confront her family's determination to keep her away from her true love and make her marry another man, but she must sell her body as a cash cow, literally. Pasteur was just introducing his new process to preserve milk safely as the story progresses, so selling mother's milk as a profession was at its peak.
It was also a new era for women, as they demanded new rights and learned to read. The lure of the colonies is also very evident, as opium trade from the Orient, and dreams of a new life in Algeria flourished among the population. Many other bits and pieces, too many to mention, from this time period are woven into the story very naturally. Without noticing it, one is getting a wonderful history lesson, which is not all preachy or even obvious.
The cast is wonderful, especially Marthe Keller in a role made to fit for her as a domineering and cruel matriarch. The sets, costumes and cinematography are breathtaking. The film is just long enough to tell its various story lines, and never bores. Definitely recommended, and not just to history buffs or period piece lovers.
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