The France of Benoit Jacquot is often shot through with warm sunlight that dances off the leaves in the verdant country. There is a beauty to his movies that is more often than not regarded incidentally by his characters, if at all. In most every case, there is more darkness to his films than their surfaces make it seem. His last, Three Hearts, was ostensibly a love triangle-based comic melodrama that was actually a horrific look at lives destined to be torn asunder. Jacquot’s compelling point of view seems to be that, yes, the world is beautiful but, with everyone experiencing so much internal angst, who has time to notice? With Diary of a Chambermaid, he has constructed a gorgeous, well-appointed period piece, filled with striking costumes and sets, that suggests the only way to survive such a place is cutthroat individualism.
Lea Seydoux stars as Celestine, a maid for hire who is contracted to work in the estate of a wealthy provincial couple. The husband (Herve Pierre) is groping and boorish while the wife (Clotilde Mollet) is cruel for cruelty’s safe. Yet the other members of the staff (Melodie Valemberg and Vincent Lindon) appear, at least at first, to be loyal to them. While the main plot details Celestine’s acclimation to her new job, a series of flashbacks fill in the gaps of her employment history.
On Celestine’s first day, Mollet’s Madame Lanlaire takes her through the house, pointing out all the valuable things she must make sure not to break. It’s not just condescending, it’s more or less a catalog of items that have more value than Celestine does. That’s not the end of Madame’s cruelty. Later, for no apparent reason other than for fun, she repeatedly sends Celestine up and down the stairs to fetch items one at a time instead of all at once and then chastises the increasingly winded maid for taking too long.
Jacquot and Seydoux are re-teaming after 2012’s Farewell, My Queen, Jacquot’s best work to date. And the sequence just described resembles that film (as well as Jacquot’s other greatest work, 1995’s A Single Girl) in its dedication to tracking events in real time. As Celestine trudges up and down the same stairs and hallways over and over, Jacquot’s handheld camera follows close behind, never allowing the viewer the ellipsis that is also denied the subject.
Such events are, to Celestine, minor among the ongoing parade of indignities that make up her life as a woman of little means at the turn of the twentieth century. In one flashback, she is straightforwardly, almost nonchalantly, offered a position in a brothel, the implication being that the life of a servant and that of a prostitute are on equal footing.
It would be easy to make a movie about how inhumanely the upper classes treat the lower. Indeed, that’s what Diary of a Chambermaid appears to be doing at the start. Over the course of the film, though, Jacquot is careful to includes scenes where nearly everyone–rich, poor, Catholic, Jew, etc.–behaves with barbarous self-centeredness. And it all unfolds against a lush and stunning backdrop.