Bad Servants: Benoît Jacquot’s 'Diary of a Chambermaid' and a Critic’s Berlinale

Jacquot's film is compulsively watchable, refreshingly unsexy, and successful in its patchwork depiction of its protagonist's prison-like existence.

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Feb 20 2015, 3:22pm

Vincent Lindon and Léa Seydoux in 'Diary of a Chambermaid' (2015), directed by Benoît Jacquot. © Carole Béthuel

This is the final installment of our three-part coverage of the Berlinale. Part one, on Jafar Pahani's Golden Bear-winning Taxi, is here. Part two, on Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert, is here.

In Berlin, Sunday mornings are when Friday night clubbers start to flag. Flushed faces emerge from the underground emanating bliss or disappointment, depending on the particulars of their owners' comedowns. Döner is consumed, noses wiped, hay hit.

I hadn't slept much myself Saturday night, but at 10 AM, I was holding a black coffee and simit on the red carpet of former East Germany's—indeed, all of Europe's—biggest show palace, the Friedrichstadt-Palast, waiting for doors to open. I was there to see Benoît Jacquot's Diary of a Chambermaid , one of the 17 premieres in competition at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. It had been an opening weekend of back-to-back screenings, and even the veterans—whose tote bags, resurrected from previous years (63rd! 55th!) testified to the depths of their festival knowledge—looked a little peaked. But as the lights went down in the theater I felt newly refreshed, and for a moment could have been in any of the city's hot, dark, and crowded clubs, dancing my life away, at any hour of the day or night.

Then the film started.

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Diary of a Chambermaid stars Léa Seydoux as pouting, impertinent, self-reliant Célestine, the heroine of Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel of the same name. With brooding poise, Seydoux inhabits a role previously played with Broadway gusto by Paulette Goddard in Jean Renoir's 1946 version—one of those well-regarded Hollywood classics that is almost unwatchable today—and later taken up with high pique by Jeanne Moreau in Luis Buñuel's 1964 adaptation.

More accurately, Jacquot's film is Seydoux. Every scene orbits around her, sometimes literally: The camera's favorite position is to be trained on her back and neck as she passes through Parisian corridors and the countryside estate where she finds employment, answering orders with near-otherworldly resentment, or else whispering incredulous asides. "I can't believe it, she counts prunes," she mutters about her new mistress, Madame Lanlaire, on being caught stealing fruit.

Played to icy perfection by Clotilde Mollet, Mme. Lanlaire terrorizes her female staff in order to take revenge for her husband's recidivist lechery. She respects only Joseph, the gardener (Vincent Lindon), who was the mustache-tweaking villain in Renoir's film but who here remains a more ambiguous character: duteous servant, possible murderer, foaming anti-Semite and secret pamphleteer in the era of the Dreyfus affair, and object of obsession for Célestine, who finds in his industriousness her exact opposite.

As Célestine draws closer to Joseph and learns of his own planned rebellion, the film loses interest in garnering sympathy for its put-upon protagonist and becomes a diverting series of battles in which the servant and master classes take to sex, crime, and violence in order to outwit or overpower the other. (A film about class in the traditional sense, Diary of a Chambermaid is better aligned with Renoir's masterpiece of the genre, 1939's The Rules of the Game .) But these more thrilling features—burglary, rape, murder—still register only in passing among the episodes of Célestine's everyday labor: cleaning chamber pots and polishing silver.

Diary is also a refreshingly unsexy film. Perhaps surprisingly (considering Seydoux's turn in 2013's lubricious Blue Is the Warmest Color) there are no titillating sex scenes in a movie dedicated to the power of its star's beauty. In this, the director keeps us close to the point of view of Célestine, for whom desire is something men alone feel, and something a woman—especially one from the lower classes—must manipulate in order to build a more stable and dignified life. When the unrefined cook sighs with pleasure over the bedroom attentions of Mr. Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre), Célestine listens with warm, indulgent repulsion: The cook has given it away for nothing.

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Léa Seydoux in 'Diary of a Chambermaid' (2015), directed by Benoît Jacquot. © Carole Béthuel

What's most beguiling about Diary of a Chambermaid, though, is precisely what several of my fellow festival critics can't seem to abide: The film meanders like a diary. It finds its drama in the episodic, incidental, and quotidian. There's no great dramatic arc, no sense of accelerating momentum, no crisis followed by dénouement. We never witness the moments when Célestine decides to reject or accept any of the numerous male offers—carnal, romantic, monetary—presented to her. As in life, we see indecision, bookended by a before and after that appear pre-determined. The movie ends long before the novel does, and stops so abruptly the audience in the theater seemed unsure whether to applaud as the end credits rolled.

A few days after the screening, I sat in a café recovering from my Berlinale schedule, reading the reviews. My favorite phrase came from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "curiously pointless hokum." It's the sort of thing you want to title your memoirs. All the reviews struck me as unwitting reflections of the critic's desire for order in a film experience, which is how—I thought, a little sleepily—we think about our lives, too. And we're often frustrated. The film's only crisis is Célestine's alienated life itself, disordered by the inflexible class positions of fin-de-siècle France. Each episode of her subordination or rebellion moves into the next without resolution, and without what is amusingly described in writing class as "narrative logic." The film's one-damn-thing-after-anotherness is compulsively watchable, never boring, and successful in its patchwork depiction of Célestine's prison, but it makes it difficult to identify moments that might serve as flash points for her character's growth—the easiest target for a critic's analysis.

What can you say about such a film? I disagreed with those who found it pointless. But then, the whole critical process struck me as one unsuited to the speed of the festival circuit. How could they say anything about Jacquot's Diary without taking the time to revisit Renoir's and Buñuel's versions, as I had in the following days? And what could I say, considering that I'd not yet read Mirbeau's novel? And what could anybody say about a film they'd seen only once, squeezed between other screenings, other reviews?

"There are nothing but bad employers," Célestine tells a recruiter at the start of the film. The recruiter responds: "No, there are nothing but bad servants." We were bad servants, we critics: resentful, indolent, spoiled. Eager to dismiss and find flaw according to some byzantine code of personal taste. Hateful of what does not move us in familiar ways, tug at heartstrings, or light up our empathy cortex. Above all envious of filmmakers, screenwriters, key grips, caterers—anyone who could be said to make films rather than review them.

In short, I was starting to get a little sick of the Berlinale. It was time for a break. Maybe I'd go dancing.

Ben Mauk is a Fulbright Scholar living in Berlin and a regular online contributor to the New Yorker .

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