native French still carry residual baggage from the Dreyfus Affair, but newly
arrived immigrants are probably not so well versed in the nation’s most
notorious anti-Semitic incident pre-dating World War II. Rather ominously, one
fears Benoît Jacquot implies too much in his adaptation of prominent Dreyfusard
Octave Mirbeau’s celebrated novel. There is conspicuous consumption upstairs
and virulent anti-Semitism downstairs with little historical context in between
throughout Jacquot’s Diary of a
which opens this Friday in New York.
in the footsteps of Renoir and Buñuel is a tricky business, but since neither
auteur was especially faithful to the source novel, Jacquot had room to lay his
claim to the material. The Lanlaire household is still a hothouse of pent-up
sexual desire and class based resentment, but this is a more Spartan, genuinely
has never lasted long in a post, because she has tenaciously guarded her virtue
from lewd masters. Frankly, chambermaids like her were caught in a vicious
Catch-22. Those who were impregnated were dismissed with some modest hush money
or simply kicked to the curb. However, her employment agent seems to suggest Célestine
act more coquettish, promising much while delivering little, but their
discussion is highly coded. Having a reputation for being difficult, Célestine
must accept a position in the provinces with the wealthy (and yes, Jewish)
is exactly the type of lecher Célestine is used to fending off. Madame Lanlaire
is a petty control freak of the worst kind, but still not radically beyond the
chambermaid’s experience. However, Joseph the gardener is something else. His
taciturn earthiness both attracts and repulses Célestine. He is most certainly a man, but also a
Célestine deals with the unpleasant challenges of life with the Lanlaires, she
remembers prior positions and contemplates a potential fresh start with Joseph.
In due course, it becomes clear he is an ardent hate propagandist, a thief, a
possibly a rapist-murderer, but he has a plan, which Célestine finds
of Joseph’s faults are implied and not explicitly established. That certainly constitutes
subtle filmmaking, but it might be too subtle in a day and age when it is not safe to wear a Kippah on the streets of Paris (one wonders what Mirbeau would
make of such entrenched anti-Semitism). Sadly, it is entirely possible plenty
of domestic viewers might have concluded Joseph is the salt-of-the-earth,
especially since he is played by the charismatically craggy Vincent Lindon.
Fortunately, Lindon absolutely radiates quiet malevolence, but you have to
wonder if it will be sufficient to make Mirbeau’s point.
Léa Seydoux is perfect as the calculating but not completely callous Célestine.
She destabilizes every room she enters. Patrick d’Assumçao is further wild card
as the surprisingly sinister Captain Mauger, the Lanlaires’ despised neighbor.
Yet, Mélodie Valemberg really lowers the boom as the much abused cook,
Marianne, leaving us with no illusions regarding life in-service during the
Belle Époque era.
Katia Wyszkop’s design team worked marvels
crafting the Lanlaire estate. It all looks appropriately lived and even a bit tacky,
in a nouveau riche kind of way. Unfortunately, those tempted to reduce the film
to a trite “1%” interpretation will perhaps intentionally overlook the social
pathologies and psychological conflicts that most concerned Mirbeau. In fact,
the irony of Célestine becoming that which she most reviled is entirely absent
from Jacquot and Hélène Zimmer’s adaptation. As a result, the film feels
hollow, like it is bereft of its soul. A handsome but perversely tone deaf
production, Diary of a Chambermaid opens
this Friday (6/10) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.
Labels: Benoit Jacquot, French Cinema, Lea Seydoux