A degree of hubris is required for any current Continental auteur to re-adapt Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 succes de scandale “Diary of a Chambermaid,” given its enduring association with the names Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. In this slender, slippery update, however, Benoit Jacquot has at least balanced his with a measure of kinky japery: While it’s the least vivid of the three versions, it arguably comes closest to matching the sauciness of the source. Starring an ideally cast Lea Seydoux as the secretive servant of the title, seeking self-advancement at the expense of her snooty employers, the film milks some brisk comedy from its upstairs-downstairs peekaboo, but is too breezy to convince in its depiction of obsessive erotic fixation — making for a “Diary” that oddly feels less exposing as it goes along.
Seydoux’s name and other attractive trappings guarantee a degree of international distributor interest in a project that otherwise looks a decidedly French affair — notwithstanding a co-producing credit for Belgian cinema doyens Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. It’s not surprising to see Jacquot reteaming with the now-ubiquitous Seydoux: Their previous collaboration, 2012’s subtly subversive palace drama “Farewell, My Queen,” won France’s lofty Louis Delluc Award and surpassed financial expectations both at home and abroad.
“Chambermaid” may prove too eccentric to replicate that success, but it does again show how the sensibilities of star and director complement each other. Jacquot likes his period pieces mounted with blunt modernity, employing internal stylistic contrast to point out how social and sexual mores have subsequently evolved; in Seydoux, a coolly 21st-century presence with the Madonna-like features of a silent-movie goddess, he has found a suitably angular, elusive muse.
All the better, then, for the actress to play a woman striving to be a few years ahead of her time at every turn. “You sure are from Paris,” sneers a homely rural maid at Seydoux’s Celestine, a sullen maid from the city relocated by her agency to a joyless bourgeois household in remote Provence, spitefully ruled by the middle-aged Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet, splendid) and her weak-willed, lecherous husband (Herve Pierre). From her first pithy comeback to her supervisor — “I’m bursting with good conduct, believe me,” she smirks, barely suppressing an eye-roll — Celestine doesn’t for one moment mask her conviction that she’s better than the only job allowed her by her gender and social station.
Tempting as it is to read Celestine as a proto-feminist heroine, that’s not precisely the case. There’s little to suggest that she believes in the equality of all women — merely that she believes herself a cut above the pack. Jacquot and Helene Zimmer’s loose adaptation of the novel acidly critiques the social rigidities of turn-of-the-century Europe, but actually mollifies the acrid irony of Mirbeau’s own conclusion, which saw Celestine become a mistress as vicious as her own despised former employers. It’s worth noting that both Renoir’s and Bunuel’s films took extensive liberties with the text as well: If there’s a case to be made for repeat revisions, it’s that the tonal and narrative adjustments in each one reflect to some extent the sexual politics of the era in which it was filmed.
Certainly, Jacquot takes advantage of relaxed censorship restrictions: Celestine dispenses the F-word with cosmopolitan abandon, while the film’s funniest scene has the memorable visual punchline of a large, anatomically correct dildo, plushly encased in red velvet. (Our heroine, of course, is unimpressed: “I wear those jewels in their natural state,” she says witheringly.) As Jacquot begins uncovering erotic impulses and innuendoes in all corners of this lavender-garnished rural enclave (even the village priest, we are winkingly told, is someone to whom “any woman could confess”) it would appear that the film is headed into more transgressively carnal territory befitting its interest in precocious femininity: “Fifty Shades of Grey Poupon,” perhaps.
That line of investigation oddly tapers off at the midway point, following Celestine’s lusty but unhappy tryst with an intermediate master, tubercular twentysomething Georges (Vincent Lacoste). The pic’s plottier second half turns on tightly wound schemes and reversals worthy of a James M. Cain potboiler, with Bruno Coulais’ eager, noirish score suggesting that Jacquot may have made the same literary comparison himself.
It’s a development notionally driven by Celestine’s simultaneously rapt and repulsed interest in the Lanlaires’ swarthy coach driver Joseph (regular Jacquot collaborator Vincent Lindon), yet this is where the film runs out of steam in more ways than one: However much Romain Winding’s camera lingers on Lindon’s glowering gaze and Seydoux’s knowing half-smile, there isn’t enough heat between these fine actors to convey even a compromised sexual fascination. As in Bunuel’s adaptation (which cannily shifted the action to the 1930s), Joseph’s virulent anti-Semitism is also a key plot point here, though this injection of political rhetoric sits oddly with the film’s spry indoor concerns.
As in “Farewell, My Queen,” Jacquot’s revisionist approach extends to his deromanticized aesthetic: Katia Wyszkop’s production design is more sparsely appointed than you’d customarily expect in a film of this nature, while Anais Romand’s sumptuous costumes are coldly embraced by Winding’s lensing, which often favors anachronistic New Wave-style zooms: The digital edges of each frame are as hard as the taffeta textures within are not.