After the critically slammed “Bambola,” Catalan helmer Bigas Luna changes direction with his first period piece, “The Chambermaid and the Titanic,” a stylish and intelligent romance which, for a pic about passion, is oddly cold. Much of Luna’s offshore appeal has come from his quirky, exuberantly parodic takes on Spanish culture such as “Jamon, Jamon” and “Golden Balls,” and this time around, pic’s relative sobriety might catch auds unawares. But there is still enough elegance and wit to ensure that “Titanic” should pull safely into foreign arthouse ports.
Simple storyline, from Didier Decoin’s Goncourt Prizewinning novel, has French foundry worker Horty (Olivier Martinez), who’s married to Zoe (Romane Bohringer), winning a strong-man prize to go to Southampton to see the launch of the Titanic. When he arrives at his hotel, Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) comes to his room with the story that she is a chambermaid on the Titanic and has nowhere to stay. Horty lets her share his bed, but they don’t have sex. When he awakens, Marie has gone, though he later sees a cameraman snap her and buys the photo.
Back in France, rumors are rife that Zoe has been sleeping with the foundry boss. Horty’s drinking friends find Marie’s photo and are keen to hear his experiences in London, so he starts to tell them what they want to hear — his imagined erotic adventures with the chambermaid. As he tells his story night after night to his captive audience, the imaginary flashbacks increase in intensity and eroticism, and Horty eventually takes his act on the road.
As an exploration of the limits of fantasy and reality, and of how private lives become a matter for public spectacle, pic is both perceptive and intelligent. Script is compact and always interesting, with the narrative precisely conveyed.
But the movie suffers from its heavy conceptual ballast, and not every idea finds adequate dramatic expression. The development of Horty from inarticulate animal to speechifying actor is well handled, but much of what we see onscreen is happening inside his own head; there are also question marks about Martinez’s performance, which is finally too broodingly passive to engage the viewer. Bohringer is delightfully fresh as Horty’s wife, and peripheral perfs are up to scratch.
Visually, pic is witty and never less than eye-catching, from the shots of molten metal in the early foundry scenes to a scantily clad Sanchez-Gijon having champagne poured over her in lascivious slo-mo. (No Luna film would be complete without a smattering of lovingly lensed flesh.) The color scheme, too, gradually modulates from dull early on to dazzlingly bright, as Horty discovers the glamour of theatrical life and the stirrings of emotion inside himself. But more depth, resonance and passion would have been earned by giving characters a greater capacity for self-expression, and heavy-handed use of fire and water symbolism occasionally gives pic a schematic feel.
Tech credits are excellent, as is the understated music by Alberto Iglesias and the overall period re-creation (with Trieste doubling as Southampton). Following the Italian “Bambola,” pic is the second in Luna’s planned trilogy dealing with women as objects of desire and obsession, each shot in one of the three co-producing countries. Final entry, a modern version of “Carmen,” rolls in Spain next year.