It's a tall order to put yourself in the line of fire by following on the footsteps of the two major filmmakers who adapted previously to the screen Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel, Jean Renoir (in 1946, with Paulette Goddard in the lead) and Luis Buñuel (1962, with Jeanne Moreau). And there's certainly no shame in not reaching their level, even if each of their respective Diary of a Chambermaid isn't among their crowning achievements.
For that matter, neither is French stalwart Benoît Jacquot's, despite Léa Seydoux's forceful portrayal of Célestine, the proud turn-of-the-century housemaid who chafes at the subaltern role society forces her into. This is no Upstairs Downstairs glamorous nostalgia; Mr. Jacquot makes a point of underlining the daily humiliations suffered by a young woman in the serving trade. And Célestine has her hands full with her current masters, the childless, rural Lanlaires, an oily lecher with eyes only for the newly-arrived Parisian maid and a petty, mean-spirited prude. The judiciously placed flashbacks to her previous placements drive home the unavoidable dependence of a young girl, despite her profound yearning to be independent and take control of her own destiny. But is that even possible in turn-of-the-century France?
Mr. Jacquot's film begins as a companion piece to his earlier exploration of female identity within period social constrictions, 2012's Farewell My Queen, given a modern sheen by DP Romain Winding's carefully modulated widescreen swings between warm candle-light colours and naked natural light. But it's fatally unbalanced by a third-act descent into sultry, quasi-noir territory, as Célestine and the Lanlaire's groundskeeper Joseph (played with brutish energy by an underused Vincent Lindon) become an item and start plotting in secret. It's a tantalizing direction, but one that brings a strange tonal shift to the film and eventually makes it feel awkward, incomplete, as if it started in one path to change direction halfway through and lose track of its goal.
JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE
France, Belgium, 2015, 96 minutes
Starring Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre, Mélodie Valemberg, Patrick d'Assumçao, Vincent Lacoste, Joséphine Derenne, Dominique Reymond, Rosette, Adriana Asti
Directed by Benoît Jacquot; screenplay by Hélène Zimmer and Mr. Jacquot; based on the novel The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau; cinematographer Romain Winding (widescreen); music by Bruno Coulais; production designer Katia Wyszkop; costume designer Anaïs Romand; film editor Julia Gregory; produced by Kristina Larsen and Jean-Pierre Guérin; a Films du Lendemain/JPG Films/Films du Fleuve production in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Mars Films, VOO and Be TV
Screened December 23rd 2015