Film Review: Dairy of a Chambermaid

Film reviewers have very mixed feelings about the latest film interpretation of the French novel by Octave Mirbeau titled “Journal d’une Femme de Chambre”. The latest film version was created by film director Benoît Jacquot and released earlier this year. It’s English title is “Diary of a Chambermaid”.

Some critics are clearly enamoured with actress Léa Seydoux. They mention her haughtiness and sullen sexiness in her role as Celestine. They think she is perfectly casted as seductive chambermaid.

However, many have problems with how the story is told, the central and crucial relationship between the main characters, claim antisemitism plays a crucial role in setting the atmosphere and The Guardian reviewer concludes “This is a minor, flawed movie, but watchable in its suppressed, pornographic melodrama.” Don’t expect the pornographic melodrama to remedy this film.

Knowing the book only by its title and from the scandal it caused when published in 1900, I tried to find DVDs of earlier film interpretations. There is a 1946 version, made by the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir. There is a 1964 version by Luis Buñuel. But these were unavailable.

So I watched this latest film version and can only agree with the negative criticism in most reviews. And unlike them, I was not overly impressed by Léa Seydoux, or any of the other actors. Sure, she may look a bit like the barmaid in the painting, which can now be admired at the Courtauld Gallery. This is not enough to make a film watchable. After all: the most important thing in a film or play is the acting. And if not this, then certainly the way the story is told. The structure of the film does not help, though.

We meet Celestine, played by Léa Seydoux, when she visits a late 19th century temp agency for domestic staff in Paris. She is no push-over and challenges the female director when this one wonders aloud if Celestine should not be more “pliable”. With this is meant going along with double standards. Celestine has her own standards, but is in need of a job. So in the end, she accepts a post in remote corner of the French countryside.

When she meets her employer for the first time, it is clear this lady of the manor incorporates quite a few of the worst possible characteristics of the bourgeoisie. The lord of the manor starts sexually intimidating Celestine from the minute he meets her. Though his taste may actually run to younger girls.

Double standards, hushed up scandals, sexual relationships between servants and masters and employers taking advantage of servants in every respect are shown throughout the film. But most servants in turn manipulate, control, take advantage of, dupe and use their masters. This becomes clear through Célestine’s behaviour as well as through her meetings with fellow chambermaids, working in other homes throughout the village. This village also sports a rather high rate of derailed persons – no doubt because Mirbeau wanted to hold up a mirror to his contemporaries.

The total domestic staff for the rambling country house amounts to Celestine, a cook, and a gardener. In flashbacks, Célestine’s career as a chambermaid is shown. The audience is also treated to some inner dialogue and muttered criticism which is sometimes overheard by employers or fellow servants – or not. This is part of the film which causes problems.

Is it sheer boredom that Celestine becomes intrigued by gardener, Joseph? She later finds out he is involved in writing, publishing and spreading anti-semitic pamphlets – with the assistance of the local priest. The Dreyfus affair is taking place – though the name is only mentioned once in the film. The audience certainly needs to have quite a bit of background information, not only about the Dreyfus affair but the position of servants at the time, the role of the Catholic Church, the antisemitism which was rife in France at the time, as well as some knowledge about the Franco-Prussian war – and more.

Joseph proposes a way out of domestic servitude: he will buy a café in Cherbourg. Not that this is quite as alluring as it sounds. He wants to be Celestine’s pimp. However, by then, Célestine is too much in love – or so this film unconvincingly suggests. Even though she suspects Joseph may be a paedophile killer and witnesses him shooting his dogs to cover up a crime, she “escapes” with him – undoubtedly swapping one kind of hell for another one.

If you like period costumes with contemporary make-up and a bit of flat period drama, this may be a your kind of film. Don’t expect a Downton Abbey though, the film falls miles short of such stuff. One of the reviewers mentions the film does not “engage” and this is totally, utterly true. Somehow, in this film the gap between the story and its audience, is never filled. The book may be far more satisfying.

Guardian review
Standard Evening review
“Journal d’une Femme de Chambre”, Octave Mirbeau, is available in English translations under the title “Diary of a Chambermaid” in f.i. a Penguin Classics version.


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