Octave Mirbeau’s The Diary of a Chambermaid, a 1900 novel about the depravities in all social strata written from the point of view of a servant named Célestine, has famously been adapted twice before, by two of cinema’s immortals. Benoît Jacquot’s uneven take on the material won’t challenge the stature of the versions overseen by Jean Renoir in 1946 and Luis Buñuel in 1964. But star Léa Seydoux — in her second collaboration with Jacquot after Farewell, My Queen (2012), in which she plays an adoring reader to Marie Antoinette — further demonstrates, with each sly, gap-toothed grin, a keen understanding of power and impotence.
As he did in Farewell, My Queen, about the chaos at Versailles on the eve of the 1789 revolution, Jacquot relentlessly tracks his protagonist in Diary of a Chambermaid, with the camera often positioned just a few inches behind or in front of Célestine. Resplendent in Belle Époque finery, the Parisian domestic is first seen mounting the stairs to the office of her employment agent, exchanging conspiratorial smiles and cheek kisses with her fellow menials as she ascends. Célestine’s hauteur, nicely finessed by Seydoux, functions as her carapace, as evidence of her refusal to be ground down by her station. But her latest post, as the bonne to a couple in the provinces — the tyrannical Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) and her lecherous husband (Hervé Pierre) — reveals the futility of her small acts of resistance.
Perversions and caprices aren’t limited to Célestine’s employers; the Lanlaires’ next-door neighbor, known as the Captain (Patrick d’Assumçao), has his own aberrations. Nor is the repellent behavior the trademark of the upper classes. Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the Lanlaires’ manservant, spends his off-hours reading and disseminating anti-Semitic filth (Mirbeau’s novel was published in the midst of the Dreyfus affair). Célestine’s growing fascination with Joseph, whom she sees as her only chance of escaping servitude, dominates the film’s final third — and typifies its erratic rhythms.
Much like the awkwardly inserted flashbacks to Célestine’s previous tenures with bosses both cruel and kind, the maid’s attraction to the sullen hate-monger, at least as Jacquot stages it, seems imposed from a narrative other than the one we’re watching. Célestine and Joseph never make logical confederates, a result of the sodden chemistry between Seydoux and Lindon. Their scheming to leave the Lanlaires for good merely hastens the movie’s too-abrupt ending, a resolution devoid of the stinging ironies in Buñuel’s film. But Jacquot’s Chambermaid still has its pleasingly churlish moments, thanks to Célestine’s sotto-voce insults — “snooty bitch needs a good fuck” — directed at her monstrous employer, a woman pathologically attached to a Louis XVI oil cruet.