PARIS– Benoit Jacquot, a French New Wave-inspired director whose career spans nearly forty years, returned to the forefront of the international film scene with Lea Seydoux starrer “Farewell, My Queen,” a critical hit that competed at Berlin in 2012 and earned 10 Cesar (France’s Oscar equivalent) nominations. This year, Jacquot will be back at the fest with “Diary of a Chambermaid,” another period drama toplining rising French star Seydoux and repped by Elle Driver in international markets. Addressing social and political themes that are still relevant today, the film follows a young and ambitious woman who worked as a chambermaid for wealthy families at the turn of the 20th century. An adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel, “Chambermaid” is produced by Jean-Pierre Guerin’s new JPG Prods. and Kristina Larsen at Les Films du Lendemain. The novel has already been brought to the bigscreen in 1946, with Jean Renoir’s Hollywood-set English-language makeover, and in 1964, with Luis Bunuel’s French-Italian adaptation starring Jeanne Moreau.
How different will your adaptation of “Diary of a Chambermaid” be from Bunuel’s and Renoir’s films?
I don’t think we need to compare. Bunuel’s and Renoir’s films are so different, and mine will be as well. I emphasized the feminist aspect of the novel. The central character, Celestine, is a young woman who wants to be someone, and has to go through extreme things to achieve that status because for her it’s a question of life or death: she must free herself from “slavery.” At the end of 19th century, French maids working for affluent families were treated like slaves. The story is told through her eyes and comments what happens to her.
So Celestine, the main character, is willing to do so much to thrive. Do you think female audiences will relate to her or perceive her as overly manipulative and opportunistic?
She’s beautiful and very seductive but that’s all she has and it’s her best weapon. We see the degrading way she’s treated as a maid and can only understand her vital need to free herself from that domination.
Would you say that it’s a political film?
Yes, definitely, and that’s one of the aspects that interested me in this project. The author, Octave Mirbeau was an anarchist and although his novel takes place at the turn of the 20th century, it still says something about the world we live in, the condition of many women today. It also says something about racism and anti-semitism. One of the characters of the film, Joseph, is a fervent member of the Action Francaise group, which is a far-right party that’s deeply anti-semitic. The political context of the novel is very interesting as it’s set during the infamous Dreyfus trial (a 12-year-long trial during which Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, was unfairly accused of treason to France).
How was your experience working with Lea Seydoux once again?
She did outstanding work in this film. It was a very challenging role as she’s in every frame, and she managed to do it flawlessly.
I saw that you’re also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “The Body Artist” that Paulo Branco is producing? Luca Guadagnino was previously set to direct it.
Yes, Paulo offered me to direct it and that’s a film that I’d like to shoot on a whim this year with a modest budget and a small crew. I want it be a singular, adventurous, experimental film I’d like to cast a well-known American actor and a young unknown actress, possibly a performing artist, in the lead role.