Diary of a Chambermaid (2015) Review

Posted: March 14, 2015 in 2015 Berlinale, Drama, Foreign, Reviews
Tags: , , , ,

ChambermaidIf there had been an award for Most Unnecessary Film in the Competition program at the 2015 Berlinale, Diary of a Chambermaid would undoubtedly have won by acclamation. The third time is most certainly not the charm for film adaptations of the 1900 naughty French novel Journal d’une femme de chamber by Octave Mirbeau, which saw prior incarnations in 1946 and in 1964, the former directed by Jean Renoir, the latter by Luis Buñuel. That pedigree is perhaps the only reasonable explanation for why director Benoît Jacquot dusted off a 100-year old novel that long ago lost its power to scandalize. Remaking the past movies of legends does not confer the same status onto those who purvey in the present, however. Jacquot’s effort pales in comparison to both previous efforts and looks even worse when measured by the standards of contemporary cinema.

To be fair, the mise-en-scène of Diary of a Chambermaid is impeccable. The film is beautifully filmed, costumed, lit, and acted, but all in service to material better left on the scrapheap of history unless it were somehow to be adapted to modern relevance. The screenplay, credited to Jacquot and Hélène Zimmer, fails to do that. While preserving the clash of classes and the reliance on flashbacks from Mirbeau’s work is to their credit, the writers’ decision to also hold on to lurid subplots of rape, murder, anti-semitism, and criminality undoes all of the good. The moral of the 1946 version was love conquers all. The 1964 edition gave us a glimpse of the gender and political revolutions to come later in that decade. But in 2015, all we get is a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short. Men are despicable, and the only option available to a woman without wealth is to become a whore, so why resist? It’s joyless nihilism, which just doesn’t play well over the course of a feature film.

As the film opens, young chambermaid Célestine (Léa Seydoux) needs a new assignment, but has apparently burned all her bridges in the city of Paris and must take a job in the provinces with an abusive mistress, a lecherous master, a good-natured cook, and a brooding manservant. What’s a poor girl to do, other than to look absolutely fabulous? Like the song goes, when Seydoux is good, she’s very good, but when she’s bad, she’s better. Last year, the actress, known for head-turning turns in Blue is the Warmest Color, Midnight in Paris, Inglourious Basterds, and a host of other films, showed up at Berlinale in the part of Belle in another unnecessary French remake, Beauty and the Beast. This year, while the film is no improvement, Seydoux’s part is so better suited to her talents.

In the early going, with her gorgeous almond eyes giving spiteful sideway glances and her sharp, small tongue spitting out retorts under her breath, Seydoux is a brilliant, wicked little thing, almost as nasty as you want her to be. The story shows promise that she’ll use her spank-me, thank-me talents to get on top, but then the one time she does get on top, the guy underneath dies. And then so does the movie. By the end, she’s a willing victim of circumstance, inexplicably embracing the worst possible option. She’s a servant to fate, and while she may deserve no better, the audience for this one certainly does.

 

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