Benoît Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid is the third major film adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s fin de siècle novel of the same name. The poetic realism of Jean Renoir’s 1946 version teased out the novel’s humanist politics to draw parallels between France’s turn-of-the-century Catholic reactionaries and its WWII fascist collaborators, while Luis Buñuel’s 1964 version, set in 1930s France, emphasized the sexual and moral depravity of a society on the verge of political collapse. If Jacquot’s adaptation lacks the unique auteurial vision of its predecessors, it does skew closer the source material and offers some trenchant commentary about the past and present state of French society.
Throughout, Jacquot provides only rare glimpses of the vivacity that makes the titular chambermaid so appealing to her suitors, forcing one to take on faith her mercurial charms. As if to make up for Léa Seydoux’s sullen turn, Jacquot portrays the corruption and degeneracy of rural French society, which Renoir and Buñuel depicted with witty euphemism and droll symbolism, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Celestine is told outright by her employment agency to have sex with her masters. In a throwaway scene with no bearing on the plot, a railroad agent forces Celestine’s employer to reveal her concealed dildo to a crowd of guffawing observers during a customs inspection. By repeatedly exposing the phallus in such an explicit manner, the filmmakers risk blunting their own political message, about the dangers of placing greater importance on sexual vice than political oppression.
Celestine is immediately established here as a transparent object of desire, a psychological cipher upon whom her suitors project their sexual and social fantasies. She’s also prone to stating the obvious—cluing us into her private frustrations through muttered soliloquies delivered in the presence of her masters. And with the exception of a kind old woman who once hired her to look after her tubercular grandson, almost everyone treats her hardheartedly; it’s as if she’s being punished for having literally loved the child to death.
After that misfortune, Celestine’s paramours and employers have only expected single-minded obedience from her. Both her superiors and the distant and suave Mr. Joseph (Vincent Lindon) claim to be fulfilling her wishes by offering her the opportunity to fulfill their own social and sexual desires. But as these various demands and desires begin to acquire concrete political meanings, forcing Celestine to make difficult choices, the film blooms into something more than a dour sexual farce.
Initially described as a devoted and reliable servant of Celestine’s new employers, Mr. Joseph at first glance appears to be a hard man with a soft, passionate interior, quietly and hopelessly longing for the new chambermaid. When he’s revealed to be the author of a series of clandestine, virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets, which are distributed by the local Catholic authorities, the film reveals itself to be a timely commentary on the implacability of French bigotry and its diverse sources. As in Mirbeau’s novel, Celestine’s eventual submission to this evil and violent man becomes an eloquent indictment of a nation’s anti-Semitism.
The film only hints at the Catholic church’s historical role in spreading anti-Semitic propaganda, perhaps because it’s intended in part as an allegory for the prejudices of present-day France. (The church played a greater role in spreading this hate when the novel was written.) Jacquot, instead, emphasizes the lower-class origins of Joseph’s paranoid and vicious anti-Semitic ardor; this hateful racism is the driving force in his life, one which seems to animate all of his actions and decisions in some fundamental way. Buñuel emphasized Joseph’s proto-Nazi anti-Semitism, while Renoir, whose American production was made immediately after WWII, dulled the complexities of Joseph’s behavior by simply characterizing him as a fascist collaborator. Jacquot’s adaptation shows that this story, over a century old, does indeed continue to be relevant, and will continue to be so as long as the prejudices and racism that first inspired it continue to plague French society.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—24.