Diary of a Chambermaid (2015)

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Many would fear to tread where the greats have gone before. Not French director Benoît Jacquot who follows behind Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel in adapting Octave Mirbeau’s novel The Diary of a Chambermaid. He’ll say his version is very different, and that may be the case, but a little more time on the story and a little less on production design would have worked wonders. Despite Léa Seydoux’s best efforts, a promising start soon collapses into meandering and inconsequential social drama.

Seydoux, very much in fashion at present with critical acclaim under her belt and a Bond film to come, plays Célestine, the chambermaid of the title. In a commanding performance, she presents a sharp, witty and nattily attired young woman, one with a quick tongue which doesn’t help in the serving business. Sent to the provinces, she rocks up to work for a petty mistress (Clotilde Mollet) and her clumsily philandering husband (Hervé Pierre).

In early exchanges, her situation, and dissatisfaction with it emerges crisply. Célestine mutters insults under her breath and sulks around the house with some justification. When she’s not being sent marching back and forth in search of the smallest of items, she’s fending off wandering hands. Life, unsurprisingly, is not good for a young woman someway down the social ladder in early twentieth century France.

This intriguing gender focussed Upstairs Downstairs gradually fades away the longer Jacquot continues. Delving into her past, he introduces flashbacks to previous postings that offer the occasional dramatic highpoint while working more generally as an anchor on the central thread. Each time Célestine returns to the present, a period of reorientation is required, further sapping energy.

The introduction of surly groundskeeper and inveterate anti-Semite Joseph (Vincent Lindon) into Célestine’s life compounds the downwards trend. After wandering around in near silence, he grows in importance until a bizarre connection forms between the two. It’s never convincing and leads the narrative off down a path it never escapes from. The end, tied closely to their subplot is a deeply unsatisfactory affair.

It’s a shame because Jacqout’s film looks the part. Ravishing costumes and cluttered aristocratic dwellings cover the screen. He also has an eye for dark humour. A sex scene with a sickly young man ends about as disastrously as you can imagine, and a poor ferret receives the kind of treatment that would see the RSPCA rushing round with police in tow.

Diary of a Chambermaid has just enough quality to make it feel like a wasted opportunity. Instead of the handsome, socially conscious period adaptation that briefly appears, Jacquot gives us a half-baked throwaway drama that groans under the weight of its own unfulfilled ambitions. And try as she might, there’s nothing Seydoux can do about it.

Director: Benoît Jacquot
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet
Country: France, Belgium

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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