Diary Of A Chambermaid


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Diary Of A Chambermaid
"The film, co-written with Hélène Zimmer, functions like exquisite lacework with new patterns emerging at every turn."

Objects and textures have a special pull. Each slate grey metal bucket, or heavy travelling trunk, each decaying wall in the servant quarters and much-used basket on the gardener's table tells a story. More so even than what Madame Lanlaire has to say about her expensive, ugly prized possessions.

Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel are tough acts to follow, but less than a minute in, following Léa Seydoux's Célestine up a wooden staircase, the two previous brilliant adaptations of Octave Mirbeau's novel were already forgotten and I completely fell under the spell of Benoît Jacquot's concrete, transformative storytelling.

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Jacquot pulls the dainty rug right out from under cinema's costume drama conventions. 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. What he shares with Renoir is that everyone on screen is supremely human. The film, co-written with Hélène Zimmer, functions like exquisite lacework with new patterns emerging at every turn. The rotting society may not look like ours but many behaviours smell familiar.

Close in style to the unmasking spirit of Bertrand Bonello's L'Apollonide and Abdellatif Kechiche's Vénus Noire, this penetrating version of Diary of a Chambermaid (Journal d'une Femme De Chambre) focuses on the myriad ways female bodies were treated as commodities, as though independent from 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.

She is ordered around by Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet gives her a terrifyingly timeless awfulness) in cruel exercises of domination and chicanery. Up and down the stairs she is sent to fetch a single needle, then some thread, then the scissors - all in individual trips to break the stubborn-seeming newcomers spirit. "Are you clean?" she asks, and "Are you clumsy?"

Meanwhile, Madame's husband, lecherous Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) known to have impregnated every servant girl who ever worked in the household, attempts to push himself onto Célestine a mere three hours after her arrival.

The town's haberdasher, Madame Gouin (Yvette Petit), a cheerful, grey-haired woman who hangs out with the gaggle of maids is also the area's abortionist. Some of the religious potency gets lost in translation. She is referred to as a "faiseuse d'anges", as in - she makes little angels, which the subtitles turn into "she helps girls in trouble," as the idiom of an angel maker does not exist in English.

The simple quotidian elements and the landscape draw us in with their silence and grounded-ness and stark beauty. The same could be said about Joseph, the gardener and groom who garners our sympathies and hope until he turns out to be a fervent, active anti-semite. The novel by Mirbeau was published in 1900, in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair. Faithful, silent Joseph distributes hate pamphlets in the middle of the night - the local priests are in on it.

Vincent Lindon's Joseph is the toxic heart muscle of the picture. He does not smile, and carries a heavy load, heavier than the new maid's trunk, on his shoulders. Célestine is intrigued by the possibilities he represents. Could he be "honesty incarnate"?

At one point, he has a scratch on his face and we are left to speculate whether this is coincidence or related to a crime that took place in the area. 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.

Cinematographer Romain Winding, continues where he left off in Farewell My Queen, to explore the corners and corridors of a labyrinth connecting the senses of past and present, as though he photographed personal memories and made them universal. I could smell the linen closet. I could taste the stolen prunes (counted by stingy Madame). I could feel the fine lace on my neck.

Costume designer Anaïs Romand, also known for Farewell My Queen, Leos Carax's reeling Holy Motors and Guillaume Nicloux's potent sketch of an author in The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq, captures the period with precision and grace.

How much unwanted pregnancies dominate their lives, is shown by the young cook, the third and last servant in the Lanlaire household. Marianne, in a wonderful performance by Mélodie Valemberg, tells a heartbreaking story of first love and the horrors of survival, that include a job at medical school. It becomes painfully obvious that her weight is her armour, together with an air of urgent optimism that she hopes will protect her from the pain to come.

Flashbacks to Célestine's former employments are presented as quick reminiscences - episodic and to the point. They include an embarrassing customs episode and a seaside stint, that combined a grandmother's (Joséphine Derenne) kindness and her grandson Georges' sickness. Julie Delpy's Lolo actor Vincent Lacoste (Georges) coughs up a storm and has the spoiled whining down to a tee. The performances are marvellous throughout.

Dominique Reymond, who can do so much with a single glance, plays the head of the placement agency and sets the tone of what "good conduct " actually means. There are no bad placements or employers, only bad chambermaids, she insists. Impeccably dressed, the business woman of 1900 who has seen it all instructs us on the rules of the game: they have to be game. The bleak future, near impossibility of upwards mobility and the dreams that nevertheless exist control the rhythm of the film.

In the countryside, the neighbour's maid Rose (Rosette) boasts that not only does she share her master's bed, she will inherit all his property as well because he put her in his will. The Captain (Patrick d'Assumçao) gloats that he has eaten every flower and animal imaginable. His appetite matches his cruelty and poor Rose has a lot of dangerous wishful thinking to do in order to keep up her spirits.

Rarely are minor characters so compelling that you would want to see a full-length story told about them. Diary Of A Chambermaid, a work of great substance and empathy, has at least a dozen of them.

And, don't get too attached to the animals, neither ferret nor dogs, just look them in the eye and know that they, too, want to be spoken to kindly. Jacquot does not need them to get the audience emotionally involved. There is so little kindness in this world he depicts - it almost looks like ours.

Reviewed on: 29 May 2016
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An alert servant works for a wealthy couple in rural France.

Director: Benoît Jacquot

Writer: Benoît Jacquot, Hélène Zimmer, based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau

Starring: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Vincent Lacoste, Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre

Year: 2015

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: France


BIFF 2015
French 2015

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Diary Of A Chambermaid