The French director Benoît Jacquot’s screen adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid has serious narrative glitches and a shaky timeline, but at least it is true to the bitterly misanthropic spirit of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel about masters and servants. Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color), as beautiful and seductive as she has ever been onscreen, plays the title character, Célestine, a wily young siren contemptuously observing the follies of her wealthy, abusive employers.
Seydoux holds her own in a lineage of actresses who have played the same role in celebrated screen realizations directed by Jean Renoir (Paulette Goddard in 1946) and Luis Buñuel (Jeanne Moreau in 1964). The earlier films are as different from each other as this latest version is from its forerunners. In its cold, unblinking depiction of the entitled rich exercising their privileges, the film plays into contemporary outrage over growing inequality.
Jacquot flouts the sentimental tradition of period costume dramas exemplified by the Upstairs Downstairs/Downton Abbey school of historical nostalgia by portraying servitude as a miserable life made more so by the resentment and mutual loathing of the haves and have-nots.
Célestine’s employers, the Lanlaires, feel no compunction about taking out their frustrations on her. Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is a nitpicking slave driver who envies Célestine’s beauty and spirit and relishes humiliating her at every opportunity. When Célestine is especially mistreated, she mutters insults under her breath. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre), meanwhile, can’t keep his hands off Célestine, who perpetually squirms out of his grasp. He is relentless in his pursuit, but to complain would get Célestine fired.
In the most serious of the many flaws in the screenplay, written by the director and Hélène Zimmer, Madame Lanlaire is suddenly transformed late in the movie from an authoritarian monster into a benign supporter, throwing the film out of balance.
Observing the household machinations with a sinister glare is the Lanlaires’ coachman and gardener, Joseph (Vincent Lindon), a rabid anti-Semite to whom Célestine is immediately attracted. It helps to know that the book was written during the Dreyfus affair, which involved false charges of espionage against a Jewish officer in the French Army.
Célestine receives several offers to become a prostitute. Wherever she goes, sexual complications follow. She is lent to another household whose fragile, tubercular young scion (Vincent Lacoste) seduces her. Seydoux’s triumph is her skill at imbuing Célestine with an almost angelic radiance that clashes with her underlying coarseness.
Who is this fascinating character with a cunning glint in her eyes who affects a certain hauteur? Why would she elope with a brute who wants to pimp her out and who she suspects might have murdered a local girl? We never learn. The difference between Célestine and the selfish, depraved people she serves is that they’re rich and she’s not.
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre.
Director: Benoît Jacquot.
Screenwriters: Benoît Jacquot, Hélène Zimmer.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 96 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Sexual content, nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower, Cosford Cinema.