Léa Seydoux plays up her seductive strengths in Benoît Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid, the novel’s third film adaptation after Jean Renoir’s 1946 version and Luis Buñuel’s 1964 go. But, as the synopsis says, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether she’s truly sweet or truly sour, or merely riding her mood du jour.
If you watched all three films, you still wouldn’t have a firm handle on the book’s original plot. Like the directors before him, Jacquot, who co-wrote the script with Hélène Zimmer, culls details from each telling to form a Franken-Maid that feels so severely stripped you’re not always certain what’s going on.
From the opening scene, characters seem to be speaking a double language. Célestine (Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color) belongs to a Parisian placement agency in the late 19th century. When her supervisor claims she has an excellent job for Célestine and calls her intelligent and attractive, Célestine replies with a ’Ætude. Then the supervisor says that she’s “unstable” and “unreliable” and further insinuates that she’s a bad servant. Célestine, with a smile, promises to be on her best behavior.
Sarcasm? Probably. But when she arrives at her provincial post, she’s polite and obedient to Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet)—at least to her face. Her hatred of her boss not long after she walks in the door is a bit too instant and, though her instincts will prove right, unearned at this early point. Célestine is also polite and obedient to Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre)—at least for a moment. Turns out Monsieur is a bit grabby with the help.
At other times, however, Célestine seems to genuinely care, such as with the couple’s groomer, Joseph (Vincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man). Joseph won’t acknowledge her presence initially, but after they do start speaking, Célestine acts like she’s fallen. And, suddenly—if this is a flashback, it’s not at all indicated—she’s at the placement agency again, given a job to care for a woman’s sickly grandson (Vincent Lacoste). She’s tender with him. But soon Célestine is back with the couple again, as if that episode never happened. And she’s shown at the agency one more time, though the frame of the story takes place chez Lanlaire.
Célestine is likely working the various men to gain social status and wealth, but that’s never made clear, especially after a scene—again, away from the Lanlaires—in which an old biddy essentially asks Célestine to join her brothel. (Not the first such proposition.) Tears run down Célestine’s face, but she eventually agrees to a similar setup.
Viewers are let in on some of Célestine’s thoughts, or, one guesses, her diary entries. But mostly only her wicked ones—and even some of those she actually mutters. Her loving reflections are also made known. Either way, they aren’t revealed on a regular enough basis for you to know what to make of them.
One early bud that never blooms is the soundtrack of piano and strings that suggest a Hitchcock-ian thriller is about to take place. There may be one or two surprises in the slow-moving Chambermaid, but thrills they are not. Seydoux makes a lovely and sharp Célestine, and the bitches she encounters are realistically bitchy. But Jacquot needed to give a little more to communicate the lead character’s motive, the timeline, and, well, the story in general.