As with prior adaptations of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Benoît Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid follows a beautiful French woman as she accepts a post in the country with a family that relishes its power over her. Shrewish Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) torments Célestine (Léa Seydoux) with a shrill bell, running her up and down the estate’s winding stairs, while buffoonish Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre) wastes little time propositioning his new employee, offering her pears in the garden while desperately groping her. Hovering on the periphery is the mysterious, alpha-manly gardener, Joseph (Vincent Lindon), who initially speaks to Célestine in curt un-pleasantries, gradually growing comfortable enough with her to reveal a nasty nationalist streak. Characters keep surfacing, and we’re compelled to watch as Célestine takes stock of her evolving situation, manipulating others and fending off frequent harassment while forging a means of social ascension.
All the films based on Mirbeau’s novel, most prominently those directed by Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, pivot on the ugliness of caste power, with Célestine serving as an embodiment of the female working class, which is subject to so much harassment and exploitation that it’s taken as a matter of course, the abuse so obvious as to be paradoxically insidious. Renoir, hobbled by the moors of 1940s-era Hollywood, un-ironically focused on Célestine’s romantic transcendence of her station. By contrast, Buñuel’s film positively drips irony, abounding in a wicked sense of humor that’s characteristic of the director’s career, while intensifying the story’s wider-ranging implications as a parable of France’s legacy of subjugation and civil division.
Jacquot treads a middle line between these most famous approaches to the material. We’re more inclined to conventionally root for Célestine here than we were in Buñuel’s version, but her reprisals are still understood to reinforce the class system that suppresses her. Seydoux, though almost as purposefully hard to read as Jeanne Moreau was in the Buñuel film, doesn’t have the stature required to inform that opaqueness with contradictory nuance, as Moreau did. Seydoux’s Célestine seems merely disgusted rather than unresolvedly aroused as Moreau’s Célestine was—a difference that drains the new film of interior conflict, simplifying an understanding of classism as a structure that invites everyone’s complicity whether they fall into the category of have or have-not. (The ending, though, belatedly restores this thorniness.)
This lack of ambiguity reflects Jacquot’s treatment of the text, which is devoid of either formal obsessiveness or a contemporary hook. Jacquot quite competently tells the story, involving us in a variety of un-lanced tensions, deriving suspense from our dependency on three-act structure as we assume that Célestine’s escalating hostility toward her atmosphere will lead to violent catharsis. But there’s no sense of surprise in this Diary of a Chambermaid, even for those who’re unfamiliar with the material. What this film most reflects of the contemporary age is its obsession with plot-heavy television that abounds in event at the expense of emotional portraiture.