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Nonsensical plot hampers ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’

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"Diary of a Chambermaid" | Mars Distribution
Grade: D+


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JUNE 16, 2016

Benoît Jacquot’s French-language “Diary of a Chambermaid” is a singularly atrocious film. It centers on the chambermaid Célestine (Léa Seydoux, “Blue is the Warmest Color”) and her professional and not-so-professional dealings with her bourgeois employers in the French countryside around the late-19th century. Based on the 1900 novel of the same name, “Diary of a Chambermaid” is a tremendous failure, offering little more than an impenetrable narrative, a nonlinear plot and minimal character development.

Célestine is a haughty and deeply angry young chambermaid hired to work in the Normandy home of Madame and Monsieur Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet and Hervé Pierre). Though she assures Madame Lanlaire that she had grown tired of Paris, Célestine finds her new rural post far from ideal, as she becomes subject not only to the madame’s despotism and the monsieur’s wandering hands, but also the persistent and unavoidable beating of the past upon the present.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of “Diary of a Chambermaid” because it is a film seemingly without action. Jacquot abandoned conventional narrative structure almost in its entirety: The film has no expository character development, minimal rising action, no discernible climax and a completely unsatisfying dénoument. “Diary of a Chambermaid” does not feel like a film so much as hidden camera footage of the day-to-day petty intrigues of provincial life. It’s as if Jane Austen decided to forego her wit and joie de vivre entirely and simply describe the furniture directly in front of her.

What little organization the film’s plot possesses is further torn apart by the inclusion of seemingly senseless flashbacks. The film frequently jumps backward in time, sometimes by a matter of years, in bizarrely random linear shifts. Perplexingly, the flashbacks are never clearly identified as past events, and it often takes minutes for the viewer to realize that they are not watching events presently unfolding, but ones that took place years in the past.

Even more troubling than its utter lack of an organized plot is the basal character maturation “Diary of a Chambermaid” offers. Célestine is a disturbingly shallow protagonist. The sum total of information the viewer can possibly gather about her is that she dresses immaculately, she has sex with multiple men and she is angry.

Fury glows perpetually beneath the skin of Célestine’s seraphic face. It’s not difficult to guess her reasoning — she and the other servants are treated abominably by their employers — but she also appears to derive masochistic pleasure from the rank mistreatment directed toward her, and it’s never made clear why. Once, after physically fighting off the monsieur’s sexual advances, Célestine bounces away with a broad Duchenne smile breaking across her face. Is she proud to have fought for herself? Did she enjoy hurting her employer’s feelings? Does she find “the chase” erotic? None of these questions are ever answered, leaving the viewer bewildered and perhaps a little disturbed by such a gross lack of clarity.

By no means does Célestine stand alone in her puddle of superficiality. Practically every character in “Diary of a Chambermaid” exists in a development vaccuum. No action bears obvious meaning; everything appears senseless. Madame Lanlaire, a petty tyrant, brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s oft-quoted line from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “No pleasure but meanness.” Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the gardener and hard-core anti-Semite, asks Célestine to marry him with no preceding flirtation or courtship. This stubborn opacity is more than confusing: It’s downright aggravating, and it ratchets up the film’s already high degree of chaos to a thrumming fever pitch.

Jacquot’s “Diary of a Chambermaid” is a senseless tale of abuse, anti-Semitism and bourgeois life in the dressings of meaningful film. Its only saving grace is its elegant sets and costumes, clearly created with intense attention to detail. Nonetheless, “Diary” is a poor credit not only to Léa Seydoux, a truly excellent actor in most productions, but French cinema as a whole.

Contact Sarah Coduto at [email protected].

JUNE 15, 2016

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