Insolence versus injustice is the theme of Octave Mirbeau’s novel, Diary of a Chambermaid. As adapted by director and co-writer Benoit Jacquot, it’s a bracingly nasty piece of work, contrasting brutishness at the bottom and condescension from the top.
Jacquot previously directed star Lea Seydoux in somewhat similar material, Farewell My Queen. She’s the movie’s real raison d’etre. Seydoux has impressed in films as different as Spectre and Blue is the Warmest Color, but Jacquot was one of the first to understand Seydoux’s fascinating sullenness, and to appreciate those gunfighter eyes: when Seydoux glares at someone, you think of Lee Van Cleef in a spaghetti western. And Jacquot has the budget to make this version authentic to the 1890s, when the Dreyfus affair was setting France through a round of Jew-hating panic.
Mirbeau was a muckraker in his way—his novel Sebastian Roche, filmed recently, was a very early account of priestly sexual abuse. Despite the ooh-la-la title of Diary, it’s in some respects a continuation of Flaubert’s work. Mirbeau ladles on the vinegar while differentiating cozy, romantic notions of country life from the narrow minds, schemers and swine who dwell in the hinterlands.
After making the honorable choice between being a maid and being a whore, Seydoux’s Celestine takes a bumpy, third-class train to work for the Lanlaires. M. Lanlaire (Herve Pierre) is a damp letch; his spouse (Clotildes Mollet), a wheedling tyrant. The job includes chamberpot scrubbing and running endless errands assigned by the mistress of the house. The house’s other servant—the gentle, dull and obese Marianne (Melodie Valemberg)—has been molested by M. Lanlaire. Shared confidences between the maids show us the human warmth hiding in Celestine, which has been driven underground by misfortune and sexual harassment.
As Celestine negotiates her way between her two bosses, she becomes interested in the tough gardener Joseph (Vincent Lindon). He’s an out and out bastard; he writes anti-Semitic newspaper propaganda on behalf of the local clergy. And he may have even darker habits.
Right next door is the Lanlaire’s cracked neighbor, an old Bonapartist known as the Captain. He’s played by the Eli Wallach-ish Patrick d’Assumcao—it’s a part Burgess Meredith played in the 1946 Jean Renoir version, which Meredith scripted. The Captain’s large and untidy garden is meant to recall Monet’s “Giverny,” and the Captain is whimsical enough to eat flowers snatched off the plant. Still, he has a vicious streak that pops out like a jack-in-the-box. Warning: this movie is rough on animals; in a later scene, a pair of dogs are shot, likely to encourage their replacements to be more vigilant against prowlers.
It wasn’t indecent haste to revisit the source material; truth is, I’ve never seen a bad movie version of Diary, despite the drastic range of styles in the adaptations. It’s juicy material. Renoir’s version was saucy, tart and genial. The 1964 Luis Buñuel film, updated from 1900 to the Depression, made Joseph’s evil even more explicit—we saw the corpse of a girl Joseph may or may not have snuffed, dead, with snails crawling up her thighs. (A spilled basket was nearby; the girl had been gathering the snails for supper.)
The gastropods were too much for Jacquot, but the famous moment of a sex toy buzzing away unseen in Buñuel’s Belle du Jour may be referenced with the incident here of an ivory dildo discovered by customs agents. Movie directors are simultaneously more explicit and less explicit than they were a half-century ago.
The flashbacks are over-sudden—it’s as if they’re only there to have something to cut to—but Jacquot’s elegant malice makes this work. We get on Celestine’s wavelength: we don’t have any backhanded sympathy for Madame Lanlaire when she weeps great hawking sobs, having discovered her house plundered of its second-rate treasures.
Like the ugly antiques Mme. Lanlaire hoarded, yesterday’s exposees inevitably look a little nostalgic. Jacquot keeps all necessary dirt here, however smoothed by Bruno Coulais’ Chopin-like soundtrack and the cold, post-Impressionist colors in which the creamy whites have curdled.
Diary of a Chambermaid
Unrated; 95 Mins.