By far the least interesting or purposeful of the three sound-era films that have been adapted from Octave Mirbeau’s late 19th Century novel of the same name, Benoît Jacquot’s “The Diary of a Chambermaid” is a gorgeously mounted and dramatically inert bit of fluff that drapes itself over a smoldering Léa Seydoux but never manages to catch fire. Arriving more than 60 years after Luis Buñuel’s characteristically abrasive and hyper-political take (which itself came on the heels of Jean Renoir’s comparatively melodramatic riff), Jacquot’s diffuse and unmotivated film will be remembered as nothing more than an extraordinary monument to the ferocious side-eye of its leading lady.
The bedrock of the story is the same as it’s always been: Célestine (Seydoux) is a cagey young chambermaid with a coiled gaze and a mysterious past. It’s clear from the tense first scene — in which her agency assigns her to a new gig at a bourgeois fortress in Provence — that the girl doesn’t take any shit, but it’s hard to gauge what she’s willing to give. Regardless, she’s best defined by the musk of erotic energy that Jacquot drapes over the movie like a satin nightgown. The director lingers on his muse’s face with the sensualness of foreplay, and an early rash of double entendres seem to confirm that the movie will make good on the titillation of its title. “There are excellent positions in the country,” Célestine is assured by her agent, and the not particularly subtle inference is that our fair lady is going to contort herself into all of them.
The girl’s first few days in the countryside only further that impression, as a train trip with the lady of the Lanlaire house (Clotilde Mollet) climaxes with a police inspection in which Célestine’s spiteful, shrewish employer is forced to reveal that she’s traveling with a large dildo. Her boorish husband (Herve Pierre) has no need for such things, as he stiffens up the moment Célestine walks through the door, and can’t be bothered to keep his hands off the help. Rounding out this contemptible cast of characters is Joseph (the great Vincent Lindon, last seen in the spring’s “The Measure of a Man”), the Lanlaires’ barrel-chested and fiercely anti-semitic coach driver, who looks like a wine casket with hair and leaks hate speech from every wooden rivet.
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All of these people grow increasingly monstrous as the film goes on, and nobody — not even Célestine, whose only kindness is seen in flashback — is immune to the seductive powers of money, which exerts a far greater pull than even flesh. In fact, the best decision that Jacquot makes is in not sugar-coating the awfulness of his heroine. Contemporary audiences have been trained to suspect that Célestine is using her sexuality in order to use Joseph towards some noble end, and so — in a film full of ulterior motives — it comes as something of a shock that she’s just genuinely horny for the guy. The worse he gets, the more she wants him.
Mirbeau’s novel is a ruthless satire of (and capitulation to) the dehumanizing effect of money and the toxic power dynamics that form between the haves and the have nots, and that edge has survived into this adaptation. When Célestine’s mother dies, Madame Lanlaire’s only response is: “We can’t let it interfere with your work.” This was obviously ripe material for someone like Buñuel, but Jacquot lacks the same killer instinct for social skewering, and his cartoonish characterizations don’t square with his genteel direction.
The pervy atmosphere dissipates completely as the movie sinks into a slow parade of incidents, and it begins to seem as though Jacquot is so enamored with Anais Romand’s exquisite costumes that he’s reluctant to have his characters take them off. In fact, this “Diary of a Chambermaid” could easily be mistaken for a straight-laced costume drama if not for the pitter-patter of Bruno Coulais’ winding score, the frequency of sharp zooms, and the open contempt that the people in Célestine’s social circle seem to have for each other.
Indeed, it’s hard to fathom why Jacquot felt compelled to try his hand at this material if he was just going to deliver such a familiar and complacent version of it. Perhaps Seydoux is the answer — the two made beautiful music together in 2012’s “Farewell, My Queen,” and the director may have leapt at the chance to cast his favorite screen siren in a role that so broadly plays to her strengths. Seydoux is splendid, but Jacquot so eagerly caters to her type that he fails to create a film that makes proper use of her talent. Too hesitant to be a pulpy feminist thriller and too staid to say anything novel (or even relevant) about class politics or socioeconomic salaciousness, this third swing at “The Diary of a Chambermaid” is a total strikeout.
“The Diary of a Chambermaid” opens in theaters on Friday.