In Benoit Jacquot's Les Adieux à la Reine (Farewell My Queen), the vivacious 18th-century protagonist moved purposefully through dark passageways reserved for royal servants. In the director's Journal d'une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid), set a century or so later, our heroine spends more time in the sunlight, but has scarcely more freedom.
Three other things the two films share: the ever-watchable Lea Seydoux, a mix of opulent costume-drama sensibility and unadorned new-wave style, and a setting near the end of a rotten era.
This is the third sound-era filming of Octave Mirbeau's once-scandalous 1900 novel, adapted almost blithely by Jean Renoir in 1946 and more grimly by Luis Bunuel in 1964. The story pits subjugated but prideful Celestine (Seydoux) against two new bosses, the absurdly demanding Mme. Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) and her bumblingly lecherous husband (Herve Pierre), said to have had his way with many local working-class women and girls.
Sure of herself, and of her beauty, Celestine seems able to handle Monsieur. But she struggles to abide Madame, who calls for her new maid with the frequent ringing of a small bell. When Celestine reports that her mother has died, Madame icily instructs, "It mustn't affect your work."
Occasional flashbacks to Celestine's previous positions all turn on sex. In one, a policeman insists that the maid's employer open a red box that contains an embarrassing object. In another, the young woman is approached on the street in Paris by a grandmotherly type who, it turns out, wants to recruit her for a brothel. Most significant is Celestine's time at a seashore mansion where she cares — in both senses of the word — for Georges (Vincent Lacoste), a handsome young man who's dying of tuberculosis.
Georges was Jewish, and Celestine soon finds herself defending the Jews in suppertime conversations with Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the Lanlaires's coachman, gardener, and handyman. It's the era of the Dreyfus affair, and Joseph has a sideline in anti-Semitic pamphlets, distributed clandestinely by the village's Catholic clergy.
Equally hostile at first is the household's cook (Melodie Valemberg), but she and Celestine come to bond over a shared history of exploitation. Later, they join in gossipy conversations with the town's other female servants, in which rape, unwanted pregnancy, and even murder are coolly discussed. These scenes don't advance the plot, but they are the movie's heart.
Rough-edged Joseph is as odious as the local gentry, yet he has a plan for independence, and offers to include Celestine in his scheme. Escaping the Lanlaires and everyone like them has an obvious appeal. But the script, written by Jacquot and Helene Zimmer, insists also that the maid fall under the brute's erotic spell, something the actors don't make persuasive. Rather than gain speed and power in its final act, as Joseph's design comes into play, the movie stalls.
Endings are perhaps not Jacquot's strength, especially when he's toiling under the weight of period details and literary adaptations. The director has done so frequently, but his tales of female emancipation work better when set in the contemporary world. He has an affinity for young (and of course pretty) women who can bob and weave, the way Romain Winding's camera does here.
Such Jacquot films as La Fille Seule (A Single Girl) and À Tout de Suite (Right Now) may not have offered stirring outcomes, but their protagonists will have the opportunity to make other choices after the story ends. No such possibility energizes Dairy of a Chambermaid.