Director: Benoît Jacquot
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lyndon, Clothilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre
Léa Seydoux is well-cast in accomplished French director Benoit Jacquot’s bucolic bonkbuster that follows the ups and downs of a sullenly confident country chambermaid, Celestine, after Octave Mirabeau’s 1900 novel. The work has been adapted various times but this one adopts a light-hearted approach despite its foreboding musical score with melodramatic undertones.
Told as a fractured narrative, we first meet the recalcitrant Céléstine as her long-suffering agency is attempting to re-deploy her to the provinces. Despite her lowly origins, Céléstine feels she’s destined for better things although her haughty resentment hides a sad and unsuccessful past. So despite her love of sophisticating, she reluctantly takes up the housekeeping role in the delightful country villa of Madame Lanlaire (Clothilde Mollet), a frustrated wealthy middle-aged woman, and her portly husband (Herve Pierre). As soon as she arrives, Céléstine realises that with a little guile and coquettishness she can wrap Monsieur around her little finger but there is also the mysterious figure of Vincent Lyndon’s hostile and saturnine handyman (Joseph) to deal with. He is, it transpires, a political activist and raging anti-semite and this sketchy backstory is presumably why the title is in competition at Berlinale 2015. However, the political angle is unexplored and largely unconvincing – making it feel tacked on to lend gravity and serious intent to this otherwise rather vapid affair.
Clearly, Céléstine has her work cut out with Madame Lanlaire and her rather chequered employement history – we are shown in flashback that she was dismissed from her previous post simply for witnessing the presence of an ivory dildo in her employer’s trunk – means that she cannot really afford to be choosy and must knuckle under her Madame’s draconian cosh. Chambermaids of the era were regularly sexually put upon by the males of the household but they also had the considerable advantage of using their feminine charms to hold these often sexually unsatisfied males to ransom, with a little savoir faire.
Jacquot’s is well known on the French arthouse circuit with FAREWELL MY QUEEN and VILLA AMALIA and his most recent drama, TROIS COEURS, was well-received at Venice 2014. DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID will go down very well with French audiences who will love its cheeky ‘follies bergères’ naughtiness. There are scenes of a sexual nature but it’s all very bawdy and superficial with little dramatic tension even from Vincent Lyndon’s political undercurrent of subversiveness. We do not remotely care for any of these people or feel moved by their plights. Even the young consumptive gentleman Céléstine is sent to care for (in another flashback) fails to evokes any sadness or even pity. There is nothing of the Thérèse Raquin or Madame Bovary to our central character and in no way is she a heroine. We are not even persuaded by the unconvincing ‘romance’ that suddenly crops up in the final stages of the film between Céléstine and Joseph although both actors perform well. Ultimately DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is as frothy as a lace petticoat – giving a certain texture but no weight in the competiton line-up. Perfectly respectable though for a Saturday night out.MT
BERLINALE RUNS FROM 5-15 FEBRUARY 2015. FOLLOW OUR COVERAGE under BERLINALE 2015