The 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 Chambermaid (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Following 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 naturalistic affair.
Célestine 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) Lanlaire family.
Monsieur 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 poisonous anti-Semite.
As 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 attractive.
Many 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.
Regardless, 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.