Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2016 3:40 pm 
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Jacquot's faithful adaptation of Mirabeau's novel meets with mixed reasponses

There have been countless French theatrical adaptations of Gustave Mirabeau's 1900 French novel and a number of cinematic ones, including Jean Renoir's of 1946 in English, Buñuel's from 1964; a forgotten hour-long one by Bruno François-Boucher in 2011. This new one by Benoît Jacquot has to be the best and by far most accurate recreation of the book. It elides the pretense of a "journal" and just shows its rambling contents of foreground alternating with flashback, with the maid, played with boldness and passion by a sultry, sexy, wonderful Léa Seydoux (who already starred in Jacquot's 2012 Farewelll, My Queen), clearly now the finest French actress of her generation, simply muttering sometimes what might have been written comments under her breath within close proximity of her hated employers. This film is good looking and superbly acted in all its various episodes. It clearly brings out the book's themes of brutal sexism, rigid class structure, exploitation of domestic servants, and rampant anti-Semitism. The latter is embodied in M. Joseph, the rough gardener-coachman (another powerhouse performance, by the great Vincent Lindon). Joseph seems a mere brute, but he is a brute as perverted intellectual, secretly writing and publishing virulent Jew-hating pamphlets in the wake of l'Affaire Dreyfus, supported by the local Catholic church in his well-remunerated hate-mongering.

Perhaps in desperation, Célestine has accepted a post in the provinces, in Normandy. Her rich master and mistress there are tiresome. In her journal she often reminisces about jobs where her situation was more comfortable. Some of the flashback episodes may seem uneven or unmemorable, except for the mistress who rapidly fires Célestine after being humiliated in front of he by a customs inspector's discovery of her hiding a large dildo, and (mostly) pleasant interlude by the sea with the sweet old lady (Joséphine Derenne) and her tragic, Proustian tubercular grandson (Vincent Lacoste, in a rare non-comedy role). But the digressive structure is all held together by the intense, at first wordless, pull between Célestine and Joseph, who has saved up money for decades and now wants her to come away with him to help run a seaport café in Cherbourg. Jacquot and his co-adaptor Hélène Zimmer make the finale more climactic by bringing the robbery of their rich country employers the Lanlaires (Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre), including the removal of Madame's treasured silver, to the foreground, and clearly involving both Joseph and Célestine in the theft, whose authors remain a mystery in the novel.

So most if not all of the adaptors' decisions are good ones. Above all Jacquot nicely handles period - unlike Renoir and Beñuel he sets the action in the 1890's like the book. Some use of handheld camera, and vivid acting, make the action feel almost contemporary, but without any anachronism - or the kind of adoring quaintness that limits UK upstairs-downstairs dramas. Is it a nostalgia for those that has made English and American critics so strangely condescending toward this smart, comprehensive, admirably concise film? It's hard in a short review to convey the richness of Jacquot's recreation of the novel's complexity. It's essential to have the flashback episodes both to show how many jobs Célestine has had (in the book, she announces she's had twelve in the past two years) and to show the essential role in her life of the employment agency and its stern lady manager.

The jobs repeatedly make clear one of Mirabeau's points, that female domestics were essentially sex workers. (Note also the brothel madam who propositions Célestine at a Paris café, and Célestine's face drenched with tears after she demurs and is left alone, looking like Degas' L'Absinthe..) The film is also good at showing the gossipy community of churchgoing female domestics, notably the friendship with Rosa (Rosette); and there is the mystery hey debate of the mutilated young girl found in the forest, whom Célestine suspects Joseph may have killed. Célestine is spirited, defiant, and often smiles, but when they are mean or predatory she hates her employers, especially the materialistic, shrewish Madame Lanlaire, and sees herself as essentially a slave. Madame Lanlaire rules her with a sadistic iron hand while her husband constantly makes advances on her and sexually exploits every low status young woman in the area he can get at, including especially the plump cook, Marianne (Mélodie Valemberg). The French Wikipedia article on the book says it intends to awaken nausea (la nausée), but that that nausea should lead to a sense of transcendence. Jacquot uses the beauty of his film to underline the brutality of the world it depicts.

Diary of a Chambermaid/Journal d'une femme de chambre , 96 mins., debuted at Berlin 7 Feb. 2015, and was included in at least a half dozen other festivals It opened in France 1 April 2015, where it was very well received (AlloCiné press rating 3.8). Contrast the generally good French reviews with the dismissals of anglophone critics, a Metacritic rating so far (from 4 reviews) of a mere 56, and Peter Bradshaw's faint praise in the Guardian from Berlin, 3/5 stars, and a conclusion, "This is a minor, flawed movie, but watchable in its suppressed, pornographic melodrama," worthy of Roger Ebert at his most clueless. There is a clear disconnect here. Compare Serge Kaganski's excellent review in Les Inrockuptibles. Does this film's succinctness, which I find thrilling, put it in danger of just slipping by English-speakers?

The US theatrical release began Friday, 10 June 2016. Lincoln Plaza NYC, Opera Plaza San Francisco and Rialto Elmwood, Berkeley.

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