By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley.
Lea Seydoux stars in this fourth film adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s infamous 1900 novel (Renoir and Buñuel directed the last two). She plays the manipulative maidservant to a series of rich bourgeois pigs. In this fussy and inscrutable adaptation from Farewell, My Queen director Jacquot, the maid’s diary entries get delivered as profane asides, angry mutterings that she spits out while turning away from a cruel mistress. With her ice-cutting eyes and feline features, her face stuck between a half smirk and a full snarl, no actress seems more primed to breathe fire than Seydoux. However, she’s largely double-crossed by Jacquot’s jittery self-indulgence.
The story is set at a turn-of-the-century French country estate, with flashbacks to the protagonist’s previous positions. It’s very smart in the way that it portrays the life of a chambermaid as a series of unthinkable options. Sexual exploitation is a constant, as Seydoux’s Célestine is groped by her new employer the first moment they’re alone together. Meanwhile, numerous people attempt to hire her as a prostitute who cleans without actually saying as much.
In a world where you’re utterly disposable, skullduggery equals survival, and even the local anti-Semitic sadist/possible serial killer (Vincent Lindon of The Measure of a Man) starts to look pretty good. Like The Witch, the film seems to conclude that the choice between serving evil and serving the patriarchy is a no-brainer in favor of the former. Unfortunately, unlike the weirdly authentic and involving The Witch, The Diary of a Chambermaid keeps tripping on its trappings.