Maid to measure

Benoît Jacquot on the characters and cast of Diary Of A Chambermaid.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Benoît Jacquot: 'For me, there is something very specific with Vincent Lindon'
Benoît Jacquot: 'For me, there is something very specific with Vincent Lindon' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Having just completed À Jamais, based on Don DeLillo's The Body Artist, starring Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar with costumes by Raf Simons (Dior And I), Benoît Jacquot joined me in New York for a conversation on his penetrating Diary Of A Chambermaid (Journal d'Une Femme De Chambre), co-written with Hélène Zimmer and starring Léa Seydoux.

Vincent Lindon heads a formidable supporting cast that includes Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre, Yvette Petit, Dominique Reymond, Mélodie Valemberg, Patrick d'Assumçao, Joséphine Derenne, Rosette and Vincent Lacoste. Costume designer Anaïs Romand, also known for Farewell My Queen, Léos Carax's Holy Motors and Guillaume Nicloux's The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, captures the period with precision and grace.

Jacquot's adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's novel, focuses on the myriad ways female bodies were treated as commodities, as though independent from those who inhabited them. Célestine, the chambermaid of the title, escorts us through her world when she arrives from Paris to work at the rural Lanlaire household. Any nostalgia about the good old days where upstairs was upstairs and downstairs people knew their proper place, gets stuck in the spectator's throat, like a poisonous flower with a big hairy caterpillar on it.

Célestine (Léa Seydoux): 'She really is someone who never wants to be where she is'
Célestine (Léa Seydoux): 'She really is someone who never wants to be where she is'
What is the measure of a woman? We observe everything with the lustrous Célestine or through her. At the same time, this is not the story of one maid. She contains multitudes. The perils are those of the profession. Men come equipped with canes and casual cruelty.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I went into the film thinking I would get one story of a chambermaid and I came out knowing something about the profession of what it meant to be a chambermaid. It made me think about how much cinema, Hollywood, has tainted the image of the maid. You show in a very beautiful way the horrors of the profession.

Benoît Jacquot: Merci.

AKT: What did you discover about the profession of a chambermaid while making this?

BJ: I cannot say that I really discovered anything new about what it means to be a chambermaid. My own background is from a family that is of the French Bourgeoisie and I spent my childhood growing up with chambermaids. They were part of my environment. In a sense, I felt that for me it was legitimate to make this film. At the same time, representing the situations the chambermaids were dealing with, in a way, allowed me to make amends for what I had done when I was on the other side as a child.

AKT: It's a rare film where I want to know more about each of the characters - as if you could make an entire film about each individual.

BJ: You really speak well about my film. It is exactly what I wanted to have people think.

AKT: Let's start with Vincent Lindon. In the beginning, when Célestine arrives, we see him as stern and silent and there is the baggage that he comes with as an actor anyway. The Measure of a Man - he knows what he is doing, he doesn't speak much but there is his good core. And then this goes topsy-turvy when we discover Joseph's anti-Semitism. Talk about your direction for him.

BJ: For me, there is something very specific with Vincent Lindon. In a lot of my films when I choose the actors I use, they are not only actors but they are also people that I know. And I know things about them. One of the things that I hope to do during filming is to elicit, based on the character that I'm asking them to play, some of these qualities about them that I know.

I don't know how well known he is in the US but in France one of the ideas when you first meet him is of somebody very strong, very serious - which I think is a mask really for his shyness. He seems like somebody that you might be afraid of. But once you get to know him, you realise that he can be very kind, very good, very nice - someone you want to know.

Joseph (Vincent Lindon) with Célestine
Joseph (Vincent Lindon) with Célestine
The whole thing is turned around. What I chose to do here is to set that on its head, to make it the exact opposite of what I just described. Rather than having somebody who is stern and fierce looking, I wanted it to be someone where you could think, yes, maybe this is a good guy, somebody I could trust. And then turn it around and show him to be this really horrific person when he speaks his ideas and his feelings.

AKT: The idea of having Dominique Reymond at the placement agency as a kind of chapter opening, where did that come from?

BJ: This really came about during the editing process. Truthfully, I can't really remember exactly how we started it. I have made another film since then [À Jamais].

AKT: Don DeLillo?

BJ: Exactly. I think there was another episode. It didn't begin as it begins now. I think it's a really good introduction for the viewers to who Célestine is. You get the sense of her having this kind of reticence and almost a kind of snobbish attitude but also that she must bend herself to be able to be in the kind of jobs that she is being asked to perform. She really is someone who never wants to be where she is, but wherever she is going is usually worse than where she has been.

AKT: There are so many facets to her. For example, when she receives the letter that her mother died. The pain we see adds another layer. I want to talk a bit about the Lanlaires. They have such an interesting dynamic as a couple. The wife's cruelty is so extreme and at the same time you can feel for her. We understand why she is the way she is. Sending Célestine up the stairs to fetch a needle, then thread and then scissors all in individual trips shows her own impotence.

BJ: I think for the mistress of the house, in this case Madame Lanlaire, to be faced with a servant who is beautiful, who is well-dressed, who has a sense of self-assurance and of dignity, is possibly the worst thing that she could be faced with. Because it calls into question her own position of dominance.

So what she does, she has to do to reinforce her own position. Abstractly, what I said is very interesting. But also, I find, on an erotic level this is something very interesting to film.

On Célestine with Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet): 'It calls into question her own position of dominance'
On Célestine with Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet): 'It calls into question her own position of dominance'
AKT: The line that the husband impregnates every maid who ever worked there is placed before we really find out the story of the cook. The actress [Mélodie Valemberg] is wonderful, a great discovery. I have never seen her anywhere before.

BJ: Neither have I.

AKT: It becomes so clear that she tries to use her body shape as protection, but it fails. How did you find her?

BJ: It's like all good films, I try to find somebody with the kind of body you describe but also with something very charming and tender and very human. It was quite difficult to find an actress for this role. I found her in Belgium. She is a theatre actress and she never was in film.

AKT: At the other end of the spectrum you have the Captain. He frightened me most. Killing the ferret, eating the flowers and he's a man with control over others.

BJ: For me he was less frightening because he is so bizarre. He is like a madman in a psychiatric hospital.

AKT: That's why I found him scary.

BJ: He is a sick man. Joseph, played by Vincent Lindon, he is not a sick man. He is a very rational murderer. That's more frightening. And Vincent Lindon, he didn't know what he was doing.

AKT: Vincent Lindon didn't know what he was doing? What do you mean?

Georges (Vincent Lacoste) with Célestine
Georges (Vincent Lacoste) with Célestine
BJ: He didn't read the [Octave Mirbeau] book. He didn't see the films [Renoir and Buñuel], and I am sure, he hadn't read the script. He told me he did, but I'm sure he didn't.

AKT: [laughing]: Is that his way of working?

BJ: When he had the scenes to do … You know he is Jewish? He is the descendant of one of the most famous Jewish families in France. So when he started to play the part, I was not sure that he could do it. But there was Léa [Seydoux] and he didn't want to seem to be the one who didn't read the script, who didn't read the book. So he did it. Afterwards, he told me: "You are aware of what you have me say here?"

AKT: Physically, you only gave him a scratch on the nose and dirty boots. The images are very precise. I could smell the linen closet. I know how that smells. I know how the prune tastes that she is stealing.

BJ: Good. So I'm a very great director?

AKT: Yes! The way the past employment is introduced comes with very little warning. That means a lot of trust you demand from us, the audience.

BJ: That's true. Perhaps too much trust. It's always a kind of contract. Now, I'm not sure I would do it exactly like that. Because I like it but it's a kind of difficulty, those flashbacks.

AKT: Because we have to trust that you know exactly when you give us what?

BJ: I'm not sure that's the best way. I don't know. I can do that because you like the film.

Diary Of A Chambermaid opens in the US on June 10.

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