Film Review: Diary of a Chambermaid

In Benoît Jacquot’s take on this classic novel, a manipulative young maid meets her match when she goes to work for a wealthy family in a small, closed-minded French town in the early 1900s.
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The loathsomeness of humanity is so thickly painted in this latest adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s satirical novel that by the time anti-Semitism and murder rear their head, they almost can’t bring the film’s opinion of its characters any lower. That isn’t to say that director Benoît Jacquot doesn’t relish watching his players scheme and plot their way around hard work or simple decency. In this world, fin de siècle French society is a rigged game. Those not born to its few crucial advantages of money or place have to do what they can to survive. Of course, many don’t put as much into that struggle as his manipulative heroine Célestine (Léa Seydoux), who hasn’t met a corner she didn’t cut or an angle she didn’t play.

A chambermaid who hates her job almost as much as she hates her employers, Célestine starts the film off at her employment agency in Paris. Having chucked her last employers, she’s unenthusiastically looking for a new job, and takes one in the provinces. The frumpy country manor she arrives at, arrogantly peacocked in Parisian finery, features a cast of characters drawn as equally from a farce as a gothic. The rigidly demanding Madame Lanlaire (a fiercely on-point Clotilde Mollet) makes a natural foil for the perennially slacking-off Célestine and is soon running her to exhaustion. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) is a winking, pinching letch of the “It can’t hurt to try” variety who, one imagines, a skilled operator like Célestine could be easily leading around by the nose were she so inclined.

But in keeping with the fractured nature of Mirbeau’s narrative and its roiling political and psychosexual undercurrents, Diary of a Chambermaid quickly veers from the lightly satirical storyline it has established. Flashbacks to a previous position, where Célestine gave attentive care to her charge, the frail and sickly Georges (Vincent Lacoste), help round her out as more than just a mercenary libertine looking to take her revenge on the upper classes. (The conclusion of that position is a shocker.) The effects of both that episode and her being an abandoned child forced to make her way in the world by hook or by crook leave her traumatized in ways that start to become clear the longer she works at the Lanlaires.

In addition to Monsieur’s attentions, two other men linger worryingly on the periphery. The next-door neighbor Le capitaine (Patrick d’Assumçao) is an eccentric who loves to chuck rocks over the wall at the Lanlaires. But just as Célestine’s lassitude barely hides a misanthropic contempt, his bumptious joie de vivre is little more than a mask for possible psychopathy. The Lanlaire’s nearly silent groom, Joseph (Vincent Landon), is a looming figure of slab-like darkness whose brooding inattentiveness to Célestine creates a magnetic pull.

The slow reveal of Joseph’s true intentions by Jacquot and his co-screenwriter Hélène Zimmer (who liberally twist and pull Mirbeau’s plot to fit their needs) and their effect, or lack thereof, on Célestine are initially jarring. The film’s first half is mostly a showcase for Seydoux, whose natural hauteur radiates a sense of being above the Lanlaires’ fine but clearly deteriorating manor, Madame’s fussy rules, and the cosseted and socially stratified nature of the nearby village. But in the presence of Joseph and his jarringly introduced agenda, Célestine becomes less an operator than acquiescent pawn.

A politically committed Mirbeau published his novel in 1900, at the height of the Dreyfuss affair, when a rabid anti-Semitism was shown to be deeply embedded in certain elements of French society. That sudden vehement hate which comes spewing out of the otherwise taciturn Joseph, and his elaborate planning that follows it, makes for another abrupt transition in an already difficult-to-pigeonhole film. Shifting from class satire to sex farce to stark historical warning with a surrealist’s stinging alacrity, Diary of a Chambermaid is intemperate, impatient, ribald and quietly furious, much like its heroine.

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