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DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID Review from The Guardian

DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID Review from The Guardian
Léa Seydoux, in all her haughty and sullen sexiness, dominates this well-crafted piece of suspenseful if curiously pointless hokum from French director Benoît Jacquot; it leads its audience up an elegantly tended garden path to nowhere in particular. DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is taken from the 1900 novel by Octave Mirbeau; it was previously adapted by Jean Renoir in 1946 with Pauline Goddard in the leading role of the chambermaid, Célestine, and again in 1964 by Luis Buñuel, starring Jeanne Moreau.

This new version mutes the sexual fetishism that interested previous film-makers, and creates an ending which is exasperatingly ambiguous, as well as rushed. Yet Jacquot’s film disperses the elements of Célestine’s anxiety into interestingly composed flashback sequences.

Seydoux is Célestine, a beautiful young woman who radiates resentment at the indignity of being in service and having to kowtow to her employers: generally well-off and bad-tempered married women who are all too well aware that the master of the house may take a shine to this pretty young thing. Célestine for her part knows how she may be abused, but realises also that her situation is sexually charged in ways that could, with sufficient coquettishness and cunning, be turned to her advantage, and she knows how servants can effectively dominate a household.

After a chequered career, Célestine finally takes a position out in the provinces: Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is a testy woman who senses Célestine’s unspoken insolent contempt, especially at having to endure tasks like scrubbing the chamberpot. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) is of course entranced by her, but Célestine herself is strangely fascinated by the sweaty and glowering groom, Joseph, played by Vincent Lindon. He is a vicious antisemite who secretly distributes bigoted leaflets, apparently with the connivance of local priests, which are full of bile about the Dreyfus affair.

The narrative structure shows how Célestine’s previous jobs give a clue to her mind. She was dismissed from her first position simply for being the intimate witness to her mistress’s humiliation at a customs border post, and seeing the official remove something horribly embarrassing in her luggage. The second case had more pathos. Célestine was employed in a situation straight out of Marcel Proust: she had to tend to a handsome, delicate, emotionally vulnerable young man with some kind of tubercular disorder, who is being cared for by his grandmother, at a place by the sea.

These situations, taken together, show how her worldliness and cynicism is balanced by a poignant capacity for love. Perhaps desperate for escape from the Lanlaires’ house, and seeing how other maids become trapped in this provincial limbo, Célestine considers a proposal put to her by Joseph, and begins to imagine an alternative future for herself, rather like that of the barmaid at the Folies-Bergère in the Manet painting.

It is an odd film: the central relationship between Joseph and Célestine is not entirely plausible, even as a desperate amour fou, but it is well acted and confidently performed. The anti-semitism is a key to the film’s oppressive atmosphere. The pale, pinched neatness and pleasantness of this bourgeois household conceal a secret poison sac into which all the evil is drained: Vincent’s horrible leaflets, which express what so many respectable folk are thinking. This is a minor, flawed movie, but watchable in its suppressed, pornographic melodrama.