Based on the scandalous best-seller…
As long as there has been something like an aristocratic class there have been two kinds of cultural products about them. The first attempts to take their superiority for granted. In collusion with the Church and the interests of royalty, we get stories about how being born to the right parents is better, and makes for better people. The other strain does the opposite, exposing the follies and foibles of the upper classes, proving that their blue blood actually leads them to more dissolute lives than the peasantry. The former can be great, but rarely cause the stir of the latter kinds of stories. Usually only the rich want to see how amazing the rich are, but everybody wants to read the terrible things they do behind closed doors. Published in 1900, The Diary of a Chambermaid is one of those products. Told from the point of view of a servant, the story exposes all the errors of the French aristocracy at the turn of the century. It was massively popular and has been made into several movies. 2015’s Diary of a Chambermaid is a decent adaptation, but not without its flaws.
Célestine (Léa Sedoux, Spectre), a beautiful young chambermaid, has been hired from her home in the city to work for the Lanlaire family in the countryside. Naturally Mr Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre, Farewell, My Queen) lusts for the young chambermaid, while his wife (Clotilde Mollet, The Intouchables) runs a tight ship with the help. Célestine is thrust into the eccentric world of Lanlaire family, one in which her beauty is as much a liability as a blessing.
The main reason Diary of a Chambermaid cause such a scandal upon its publication is that it openly acknowledges the fetishes of the upper classes in France. Célestine has to seek employment in the novel because her original employer dies with her boot in his mouth, for instance. The novel was intended to shock with its exposure of the horrible treatment of servants and the perversity of their “masters.” Despite this scandalous contents, the novel was adapted three times in the 20th century, with two different cinematic masters trying their hand. Jean Renoir produced a wildly inconsistent film that, because it was made in 1946, can’t really deal with the story’s fetishistic aspects. In contrast, Luis Buñuel’s 1964 version is too interested in the novel’s political agenda, adding a bunch of material to the novel to emphasize his anarchic/Marxist politics.
Benoît Jacquot hews a middle path between the tonal shifting but coy version by Renoir and the overtly-political but unfaithful-to-the-novel version by Buñuel Jacquot presents the novel’s fetishistic aspects without much comment, and is equally frank about the political exploitation of the working class. Because Jacquot can be more frank about the film’s fetishistic aspects, he can be truer to the characters, letting them do the horrible things that we know happened between servants and the ruling class.
Which ultimately makes this a showcase for the actors. Jacquot has worked with Lea Seydoux before. Just prior to this film they made the Marie Antoinette biopic Farewell, My Queen, where Seydoux also played a maid. Her turn here is as excellent. Her Célestine is knowing and dark without sacrificing the appeal we know the other characters are supposed to have for her. Hervé Pierre also returns from Farewell, and he’s great as the lecherous Monsieur Lanlaire. It’s especially great to see Vincent Lindon as the valet who also wants to get with Célestine. Lindon oozes a raw sexuality that’s broody and amazing to watch.
The film also gets a decent Blu-ray release. The films 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer comes from a digital source and that shows. Detail is pin-sharp throughout, with colors that are accurate and well saturated. The period details all get to shine, with no serious noise or compression artifacts to speak of. Black levels are also consistent and deep. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track does a similarly great job. The French dialogue is clean and well-prioritize, while the film’s score sounds rich and detailed. There are some good moments for the surrounds, but overall this track won’t stress your system.
Extras start with a fine 18-minute making-of featurette. It covers the standard interviews-plus-footage. The film’s trailer is also included.
Though Diary of a Chambermaid is a fine showcase for the actors, it ultimately suffers from a lack of direction. Part of the problem is no doubt the source material, which is fragmentary and often polemical. To solve this problem, the film falls into two halves, with the first a lighter and more comedic take and the second half descending into a kind of crime film as Célestine has to decide her fate. If one or the other tone had been maintained throughout – the way that Jacquot did with Farewell, My Queen, then the film might have been more compelling throughout. Instead, the sudden shift feels odd and makes the film less interesting than it might otherwise have been.
Diary of a Chambermaid is another fine film from Benoît Jacquot, who has quietly (at least to American ears) been making good films for decades. Thanks to star Lea Seydoux (who everyone should love after Spectre), the film is a watchable indictment of the social classes in France, even if it’s not the perfect adaptation of the source material.