‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ (‘Journal d’une femme de chambre’): Berlin Review

Journal d'une Femme De Chambre
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
The third time’s not exactly the charm 

Director Benoit Jacquot and star Lea Seydoux (aka the next Bond girl) team up for another tale of servant and master following 2012’s ‘Farewell, My Queen’

Prolific French auteur Benoit Jacquot always has had an eye for beautiful young women in sticky situations, whether it’s the pregnant hotel worker in A Single Girl, the bourgeois student-turned-bandit in A Tout de Suite or Marie Antoinette’s beloved, exploited lectrice in Farewell, My Queen. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that the writer-director would take a stab at adapting Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel Diary of a Chambermaid, which has previously been brought to the screen by the likes of Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. Talk about two tough acts to follow.

Sticking more closely to the original text than his predecessors, Jacquot opts for a rather classically helmed version that starts off promisingly with its various jibes at upper-class hypocrisy, before fizzling out in a third act that lacks the necessary emotional flair. Like its ravishing heroine, doomed to a long life of domestic subservience — and played here by a charming and compelling Lea Seydoux — this Chambermaid has its bodice strapped on a tad too tightly to?please.

While Renoir’s 1946 English-language version turned Mirbeau’s story into a feisty love quadrangle with a somewhat happy ending, Bunuel’s 1964 update was scaled-down and sinister, though not that surreal compared to his other movies.

Jacquot and co-writer Helene Zimmer have chosen here to be extremely faithful to the book’s damning portrayal of life among the haute-bourgeoisie, surrounding their beloved young servant with a cast of rich old hags, perverts, racists and potential killers. But the narrative’s downtrodden trajectory, which goes from bad to worse to hopeless, doesn’t allow for much of a denouement, and the movie slides into a grueling pessimism.

Things start off promisingly — for the viewer, that is — when the stunning, overtly devious Celestine (Seydoux) lands a job in Normandy at the home of Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) and her husband, Monsieur Lanlaire (Herve Pierre). But before she can even button up her uniform, Celestine finds herself subjected to the ridiculous and nagging whims of Madame, while doing her best to stave off the endless groping of Monsieur, who seems to have an unquenchable lust for?chambermaids.

Yet Celestine is not one to give in easily, and tries at first to laugh off the Lanlaires’ antics, mumbling insults as she serves dinner and scrubs down the chamber pots. Meanwhile, she soon warms up to her neighbors and fellow servants, including Joseph (Vincent Lindon), a gardener and horse-buggy driver who answers every inquiry with an unintelligible grunt, while doing mysterious things at night in his work shed.

The early scenes, which also flash back to reveal Celestine’s previous employments, are filled with playful energy and a dark sense of humor, allowing Seydoux to shine in a number of racy gags — one involving a bourgeoise’s hidden dildo and another where Celestine unintentionally shags one of her employers (Vincent Lacoste) to death, blood dripping from her lips in a sort of turn-of-the-century Gone Girl.

Yet as the story progresses, the tragedy of Celestine’s life becomes increasingly apparent, while her fight against an unbendable class system feels like a battle that’s long been lost. “We must really have servitude in our blood,” she says early on, a sentiment that seems to be borne out when a Parisian Madame offers her work in a brothel, leading to a scene that finds Celestine sitting in a cafe and considering the offer, tears silently streaming down her?cheek.

As much as these moments suggest potential throughout the first reels, the film slows down in its mid-section and finale, concentrating on Celestine’s growing dependence on Joseph, whom she sees as her ticket out of forced servility. Yet their relationship is neither appealing nor very interesting, even if Joseph’s anti-Semitic rants (the book was written at the time of the Dreyfus affair) and his possible involvement in the brutal murder of a local girl are subplots that were perhaps worth fleshing out.

If Chambermaid lacks the dramatic push to carry it through to the end, Seydoux’s performance remains robust and engaging throughout, though her character doesn’t have the emotional drive of the servant she played in Farewell, My Queen, a film that seemed to be doing some of the same things as this one — but doing them better. Other turns are solid, though the various class caricatures never feel like anything more than walking Honore Daumier sketches, which most likely is how Mirbeau preferred?them.

Tech credits are highly polished in an almost academic manner, with Jacquot and DP Romain Winding showing less of the handheld verve that was on display in Queen, while the score by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) jumps between flashes of lightness and wickedness. Production design by Katia Wyszkop (Saint Laurent) recreates the wealthy but utterly dreary Normand mansion where Celestine is confined throughout much of the film — a huge stone house filled with massive armoires, silver trinkets and family portraits, but one with no real exit.

Production companies: Les Films du Lendemain, JPG Films
Cast: Lea Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Herve Pierre, Clotilde Mollet, Vincent Lacoste
Director: Benoit Jacquot
Screenwriters: Helene Zimmer, Benoit Jacquot, based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau
Producers: Kristina Larsen, Jean-Pierre Guerin
Director of photography: Romain Winding
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Julia Gregory
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Casting director: Antoinette Boulat
Sales agent: Elle Driver

No rating, 95 minutes