I am a total francophile, even more so than an anglophile, but nonetheless, 19th-century French literature is just The Most Depressing Thing Ever — a fact that I am reminded of whenever I watch an adaptation of a 19th-century French novel (because I have at least learned to avoid reading any of them. Sorry high-school French teachers of yore!). All of them seem to feature people who are living bleak, unfulfilling lives who then end very badly (usually dead, as prostitutes, having murdered their children, etc.). Bleh!
Nonetheless, the images I was seeing of Diary of a Chambermaid (2015) — directed by Benoît Jacquot (Farewell My Queen) — intrigued me because the costumes looked so damn good. I finally got a chance to watch the film (it’s just recently been in theaters) and — yep! The costumes were smashing, the plot was confusing and depressing.
Granted, the original novel — published in 1900 and written by Octave Mirbeau — is SUPPOSED to be bleak. It’s a commentary on middle-class polite society and the slavery that was domestic service. Nonetheless, I sure wouldn’t mind it if 19th-century French writers could have considered showing how bleak life is while also throwing in a cute guy to run off with and a happy ending!
Basically, current French cinema It Girl Léa Seydoux (The Last Mistress, Robin Hood, Mysteries of Lisbon, Midnight in Paris, Farewell My Queen) plays Célestine, a professional lady’s maid/housemaid who takes on a new job with an upper-middle-class family in Normandy. As we watch the indignities of her job and life, the film is intercut with scenes from previous jobs that she’s held, and we see situations/employers who are both good and bad, and learn about Célestine’s inner emotional life and reactions to these situations. Interestingly, Célestine is not the innocent victim — she clearly has a spine and agency, sometimes submitting in an effort to make her life easier, but other times acting to stick it to her employers (and sometimes getting herself into trouble in the process).
Over time, she becomes fascinated with another servant in her current job — Joseph — who has some Very Questionable Interests, including anti-Semitism (if this plot point confuses you, look up the Dreyfus Affair for the context that the film doesn’t give you; if you’d like to read a review with some good historical context, check out this one from Fiction and Film for French Historians). And is too old and leathery for Célestine, imho. And while the ending is slightly vague, it’s very clear that Célestine is not riding off to some mythical sunset happily-ever-after. I guess if you’re going to adapt a source, it’s good to stay true to that source, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a fun ride for the viewer!
The film doesn’t drag or anything, it’s just not chipper, and I’m still unclear as to why Célestine makes many of the choices she does, despite the various shitty situations she finds herself in.
Luckily, there’s a saving grace — the costumes!
Costumes in Diary of a Chambermaid
Anaïs Romand (The Children of the Century, Les Destinées, The Last Mistress, House of Tolerance) got the c. 1900 costumes Spot the F— ON. Célestine isn’t a scullery maid — she’s got a lovely wardrobe that primarily consists of tailored suits, but there’s a nice variety and some of the ensembles are really striking. But even more than that, everything looks pretty close to accurate for c. 1900 to my eye (okay, so I’m not an Edwardian expert), minus the pigeon-breast silhouette that films like A Room With a View get so right, and one specific costume that I’ll talk about below. That being said, there are some lower-down-the-class-spectrum characters (particularly the cook) who definitely wear very workaday clothes … while most of the employers that Célestine interact with are upper-middle-class with wardrobes to match.
Diary of a Chambermaid is out in many theaters right now, and I’m sure will soon come to DVD and streaming, so keep your eyes peeled!
Have you seen Diary of a Chambermaid yet? What’s your take?