Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel of morally corrupt French masters and servants has inspired adaptations by two film giants, Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. Now “Diary of a Chambermaid” returns in director Benoit Jacquot’s reworking. It’s a cynical inversion of the themes of beauty and the beast, avoiding soft features like sentiment and pity. Its scope is wide yet small, historical and strangely timeless.
Lea Seydoux (“Spectre”) plays stunning, cunning Celestine, a resident housekeeper and would-be social climber who enters every château ready to rip apart the owners’ pretensions and rules. There is droll graveyard humor here. Celestine grins when one of her privileged mistresses is publicly humiliated after a search of her luggage discloses a hefty bedroom toy. The young beauty later enthusiastically mounts a handsome young client whose tuberculosis brings matters to a sudden climax.
Sullen and sexually weaponized, Celestine is an antihero as hypocritical as her employers, fantasizing about snagging a wealthy philanderer or poisoning Madame and Monsieur. French society’s chilling tide of anti-Semitism bothers her not at all; in fact she’s drawn to the loyal, masculine stable master (Vincent Lindon) who distributes bigoted pamphlets endorsed by the priesthood. Everyone tries to control or devour someone here; there’s only a passing fuss among Celestine’s peers over who abducted and murdered a nearby farmgirl. Packed with dense material, it twists away in new directions just when you think you’ve got a grip on it. Few films have the power to manipulate, engage, play and discombobulate the audience this well.