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Many a film have found great success in painting pictures around the vivid stories of people in service to the rich, from the award-winning Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins’ classic Remains of the Day (1993) to the under-seen Scarlett Johansson drama Girl With The Pearl Earring (2004). The stories of these servants are often far more interesting than the people they serve, and the good ones illuminate what life might have been like in times gone by. With Diary of a Chambermaid (French: Journal d’une femme de chambre) we are inclined to follow the adventures of a beautiful house maid making home in a new estate, and while it is an erratic and visually troublesome experience, it is a truly memorable one.
Célestine (Léa Seydoux) is an uncommonly attractive woman looking for work in Paris, but the director behind the desk, knowing of the young woman’s habit for short term service, offers a position in the country, and indeed, it is the only job around. So she agrees and heads to Normandy, to a lovely, garden-festooned residence where the lady of the house, Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is an intolerably cruel, iron-fisted woman who obsesses over minutia and treats the help as if they were enslaved, while her husband Monsieur Lanlaire (Herve Pierre) is a whimpering man of interest only to bed her. The Madame carries a bell and rings it with almost constant need, forcing Célestine up and down stairs, in and out of town, to the gardens and back always at great speed, even when the poor girl’s mother passes. The Monsieur gropes her when he can. It would seem a horrific trap, and yet, as desperate as Célestine seems to be, she is not entirely innocent herself. She has schemes of her own to rise above.
Also at the home is an unhappy cook (Mélodie Valemberg) who tells of abuses for years, and there’s Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the gardener and coachman who offers only mumbles when they meet, but stares at Célestine with odd disconcertment. He is a mysterious figure who later reveals to her an interesting means of escape, his exposure of a frightening anti-Semitic nationalistic edge setting his plan into place.
Directed by Benoît Jacquot, this fourth adaptation of Octave Mirbeau‘s 1900 novel of the same name, Diary of a Chambermaid is an unconventional film, one that strives for authenticity while veering often into the peculiar. Creepy, sometimes erotic, and often odd imagery layer over much of what Célestine endures, giving the film a disturbing sense of unease. That’s not to say Jacquot mishandles the material. In fact, anything but, as the disjointed tone provides tremendous atmosphere. There is an impulse to assign these asides in the story some deeper meaning, and perhaps they do narratively, but visually, their effects are compelling and give the experience a curiously captivating charm.
Much of the film’s success hinges on Seydoux, an actor many might know from her work in English-language films such as Spectre and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Here, she moves throughout the film with astonishing presence, giving Célestine incredible emotional impact. A moment in a cafe after being approached by a madam who understands immediately the power and allure of the girl’s beauty is devastating. There’s also a riveting flashback to a time with a man her age suffering from tuberculous that is filled with such loneliness and need for something to break her of this despair, it is heartbreaking. Seydoux is of course, transfixing to watch, but she gives Célestine a character of such immense depth, we become invested right from the opening frame.
Diary of a Chambermaid is a film that asks its viewer to consider much, crafting a story that is rife with issues that practically demand conversation. It is bubbling over with a number of eccentric and sometimes quirky characters that color the world Célestine exists, and we are tasked with understanding their place and worth. This is a complex film, dialogue-heavy and rich with subtext that drives nearly every scene. All the while, as the score urges us to feel anxiety, Jacquot slowly, wickedly, zooms in and out on Célestine’s face, daring us to judge her, to find in her a reason to question what she does and why. Diary of a Chambermaid is a film that keeps you thinking, and it deserves your every thought.
Director: Benoît Jacquot
Writers: Hélène Zimmer, Benoît Jacquot
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet