The unlikely pairing of an obsessive-compulsive chambermaid and an androgynous dominatrix proves oddly liberating for the eponymous heroine of Ingo Haeb’s intimate two-hander, “The Chambermaid Lynn.” Rarely has fetishism been portrayed with such intense, empathetic attention to detail, yet Haeb never seeks to draw viewers into his heroine’s point of view; instead, he minutely observes her strange behavior, with a remarkable lack of prurience or judgment, as the odd young woman explores the private minutiae of other people’s lives. This unique curio, which snagged the Fipresci award in Montreal, could find appreciative arthouse auds worldwide.
Cleaning is less of a job for shy, unprepossessing Lynn (Vicky Krieps) than a true vocation, an all-consuming passion, as she crawls under a bed to vacuum the bottom of a mattress, or uses a dentist’s angled mirror to check that she’s scrubbed all the dirt from the underside of a toilet rim. She rarely interacts with others, yet is endlessly curious about how others live, inspecting their habits with the kind of baffled interest generally reserved for other species. She tries on their clothes (men’s as well as women’s), examines the pictures in their wallets and reads the inscriptions on their rings. She even hides beneath their beds to observe them unseen.
One day, Lynn witnesses an exchange between a hotel guest and a prostitute, her floor-level vantage point revealing a woman’s black stockings and stiletto heels, which run up and down the man’s bare leg before pressing down hard into his unprotected foot. Intrigued and excited by what she has glimpsed, Lynn hires the woman, the dominatrix Chiara (Lena Lauzemis), to visit her at home.
What ensues has less to do with S&M than with a slow, careful initiation into intimacy, Chiara seeming to know just how to gently nudge her client into accepting, then welcoming, her touch; their sex-for-hire transactions morph into something deeper, their lovemaking achieving a unique blend of force and tenderness. Lynn learns to interact directly with another human being while Chiara discovers a genuine liking for her pupil. Chiara is amused by Lynn’s strictly regimented routine, just as Lynn is bemused by the lack of structure in Chiara’s freelance lifestyle.
The two actresses complement each other physically as well as psychologically. Initially, Krieps’ old-fashioned hairstyle and mousy appearance contrast dramatically with Lauzemis’ slick blonde coif and leather ensembles. But as Lynn gains in self-possession and awareness (Krieps’ performance staying compelling throughout), and Chiara’s attraction to Lynn leaves her more vulnerable (Lauzemis’ dominatrix persona giving way to more rueful, down-to-earth affection), the axis of the relationship shifts as Krieps gains a level of parity.
In adapting Markus Orths’ novel “The Chambermaid,” Haeb (directing his third feature) finds a felicitous tone that grants a peculiar integrity to people’s sexual oddities. Somewhere between the ironic distance of “Secretary” and the emotional immersion of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” but lacking the former’s nihilism and the latter’s intensity, “The Chambermaid Lynn” seemingly drifts more toward German fable than toward contemporary mores.
Production designer Petra Klimek’s uncluttered interiors (virtually all of the film transpires indoors until a final opening-up into lush greenery) and Sophie Maintigneux’s crisp-edged lensing lend an abstract, almost fairy-tale aspect to Lynn’s transformation.