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 scandalous 1900 novel (the last two were directed by Renoir and Buñuel), playing 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 are 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 constantly stuck between a half smirk and a full snarl, no actress is more primed to seethe fire than Seydoux, but she’s largely double-crossed by Jacquot’s jittery self-indulgence. Set at a turn-of-the-century French country estate, with flashbacks to the protagonist’s previous positions, the film is 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, and 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, but unlike the weirdly authentic and involving The Witch, The Diary of a Chambermaid keeps tripping on its trappings.