Promising a kind of raunchiness, or at least sauciness, never delivered upon, and a confessional, intimate tone never achieved, “Diary of a Chambermaid,” the latest title from French director Benoit Jacquot (“3 Hearts,” “Farewell My Queen“) is a film in search of a reason to exist, other than to set up unflattering comparisons between its director and the two greats who previously assayed the same material: Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. Based on the 1900 Octave Mirbeau novel, Jacquot’s adaptation brings little new to the neatly-set table, except Lea Seydoux, and perhaps that would even have been enough, had the film served her performance as well as it does her luscious, sulky luminosity. But where Jacquot largely knows what he’s doing on a micro-level within individual scenes, and the sets and costuming are pretty special, he seems unable to assemble the parts into a coherent, consistent whole. So the film meanders and hiccups, going into and out of flashbacks with no real reason, and losing important interim steps in our understanding of this young woman’s psychology in the gaps between cuts.
Celestine (Seydoux) is a pert, ambitious chambermaid, whose impudence and barely concealed resentment at her station in life have led her to be extended her last chance at good employment at a house in Normandy (“the Provinces”). Once there, she is immediately pestered by the amorous attention of the Master, and bedeviled by the capricious, impatient demands of his high-maintenance, shrewish wife. Below the stairs things aren’t much better, as her companions are a servile cook and the glowering, taciturn M. Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the longtime groundskeeper and handyman on the small farming estate, who takes to staring at Celestine from behind door jambs every chance he gets.
But in one of the film’s many herky-jerk about-faces, Celestine goes from wariness of M. Joseph to attraction, despite his brutishness (he’s resembles a French version of Mellors from “Lady Chatterly’s Lover“) and wildly racist sentiments about Jews. The novel was released during the notorious Dreyfus Affair, but to modern audiences this side of him may just add to the overall sense of “Well, isn’t he a catch!” This is compounded further when Celestine’s first instinct, after she hears of the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old girl nearby, is to suspect him of the crime. Who wouldn’t fall for this dreamboat, agree to steal the family’s silver and then run away with him?
As often before, particularly with his last Seydoux-starrer “Farewell My Queen,” Jacquot has made a film that demonstrates his eternal fascination with women, while not managing to create a single, truly believable one. The villain of the piece, Mme. Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet), for some reason transforms, after the robbery of her cherished silverware, from Celestine’s chief antagonist to her devoted ally, in the space of a couple of lines of voiceover and a hair-brushing montage. Marianne, the placid, overweight cook whose expectations are so low that she insistently describes a sexual encounter of the most exploitative kind as “sweet,” has a briefly interesting story (and is touchingly played by Melodie Valemberg) which is abandoned just as it starts to get good. But where they are two-dimensional, the same cannot be said of Celestine who has as many different personalities as there are hours in a day, and who cycles between them seemingly randomly.
And so we are left to wonder who is the real Celestine? Is she the smart-mouthed little social climber of the opening scenes? The lascivious strumpet of the downright odd train inspection scene, when an apparent total stranger starts nuzzling her neck obscenely and she responds delightedly? How about the sweet-natured nursemaid who watches over an old lady and her sick grandson before he falls for her madly and she ends up accidentally shagging him to death? Is she the resigned sexual plaything of her social betters, or the girl who cries at being offered a job in a brothel? Is she the haughty, manipulative Parisian with the chic outfits who boasts of her better prior posts, or the lovesick wretch who pliantly follows her racist, potentially rapist/murderer boyfriend into theft and elopement, despite his stated plan to whore her out thereafter? A character does not have to be consistently good to be sympathetic, but she has to be consistently something.
The novel and its other adaptations used the subversion of the maid’s-eye view to pry open dirty little truths about the class system, bigotry and the treatment of women as chattels. Beside them, Jacquot’s version, which struggles for relevance anyway, seems declawed. All of its satirical potential is sapped by the uneven characterization and some distractingly ropey filmmaking (hokey quick zooms and inexplicable fades-to-black). Even without two other versions, this ‘Chambermaid,’ good as it sometimes looks, would be struggling for air; with them, it is all but pointless except to Seydoux completists, and fans of the daintily perched hat. [C-]