Berlinale - Diary of a Chambermaid

Benoit Jacquot’s adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid, based on Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel, is engaging and visually stylish but loses momentum at the end. Lea Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen) plays the eponymous heroine who is desperate to escape domestic servitude and carve out a new life for herself. Celestine has had plenty of positions as a maid but for various reasons they haven't worked out. Against her better judgment she reluctantly accepts a job in the country.

As she arrives at the Lanlaire's provincial home in Normandy, Celestine reflects on her previous jobs – those she left of her own accord and those she was forced to vacate. Since she was twelve, Celestine has had to fight off the advances of men. The only offers of other work she’s received have generally involved some form of prostitution. Celestine’s lot is little different from other servants at the time. Rose, the Lanlaire's cook, had to leave her previous employment when she fell pregnant, but Celestine has a particularly hard time because she is young and attractive.

Benoit’s camera lingers on Seydoux’s sensual beauty. Madame Lenlaire (Clotilde Mollet) hates Celestine with a passion, envies her youth and beauty, and delights in tormenting her with endless trivial errands. Her husband has roving hands and pursues Celestine whenever he can. Celestine conveys a sullen disdain for her employers and frequently mutters insults about them under her breath. She is constantly biting her tongue and repressing her own passions. The flashbacks provide vivid self-contained portraits of Celestine’s past adventures and help to flesh out her character. Only a few times does she lose her composure – when a Parisian Madam offers her work in her brothel, during the death of her young charge and after news of her mother’s death.

This is perhaps why Celestine’s growing obsession with Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the Lenlaire’s taciturn coachman and gardener, seems to come out of nowhere. Joseph is a virulent anti-Semite who Celestine suspects of murdering a young local girl. Consequently, his demonic hold over Celestine lacks credibility and the denouement feels rushed.

There is still much to admire. Diary of a Chambermaid is beautifully shot and Benoit’s adaptation, co-scripted with Helene Zimmer, effectively conveys the casual violence of country life as well as the petty obsessions and miserliness of the bourgeoisie and the harsh treatment of their servants. The performances are also superb and Seydoux’s stillness and quiet hauteur are particularly memorable.

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