After Jean Renoir in 1946 and Luis Bunel in 1964, it’s down to French director Benoît Jacquot to give Octave Mirabeau’s novel a 21st century twist. Mirabeau wrote his novel in 1900 as an attack on Parisian society following the Dreyfus scandal in1894, and Jacquot’s film has removed non of the intended social satire. But his is more of a personal journey based around the character of the chambermaid. Léa Seydoux’s Célestine is a sassy young woman who feels life has dealt her a dud hand. She is forced to serve both middle class women who mistrust her beauty and their philandering husbands who want to exercise an outdated Droit de Seigneur. Jacquot’s film is less overtly political than those of his predecessors, but it’s a fascinating portrayal of a class system and mindset that still resonate today
It’s the beginning of the 20th century and after working for a family in Paris, Célestine is sent as a chambermaid to the provinces to the Lanlaire family. Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) is a bitter woman who puts a greater price on her collection of silverware than on her family. Monsieur Lanlaire (Hervé Pierre of the Comédie Française) is a randy buffoon who sees the serving staff as fair game for his sexual advances. Throw in the eccentric neighbour Le Capitaine (Patrick Assumçao) and the brooding gardener Joseph (Vincent Lindon) to whom she is strangely attracted and life in the provinces isn’t as quiet as Célestine was led to believe.
Despite the 20th century setting, Jacquot’s Célestine is a modern miss. She deeply resents her lowly position on the social scale and is not particularly skilled at hiding her resentment from her employers even down to the barely audible insults she mutters to Madame Lanlaire. The bourgeoisie are idiots to a man (or woman) – arrogant, shallow, and cruel, they are the butt of Jacquot’s sly humour. And ‘Journal’ taps this rich seam of comedy in a series of flashbacks which detail Célestine’s previous stints in service. In addition Jacquot perfectly captures the rundown, shabby house where the Lanlaire’s live which contribute to Célestine’s despair and isolation.
And while Célestine is dismissive of female relationships, remaining aloof from her fellow servants and treating her mistresses with contempt, it’s in her relationships with men that the film falters. With Monsieur Lanlaire, she is both flirtatious and distant, reeling him in coquettishly only to reject him at the end with no real aim in mind. The crux of the story lies in her relationship with Joseph and although there are plenty of smouldering looks between the two, you never feel any heat. He is boorish and unpleasant, a rabid anti-semite and possible child murderer to boot, so it’s hard to believe he is Célestine’s only real chance of a new life. As played by Seydoux, this calculating, clever woman should send him packing. Seydoux (the new Bond girl) is excellent as Célestine radiating confidence and class in equal amounts. The dialogue is crude, but she never loses her dignity while Lindon struggles to bring his character to life and Joseph remains a shadowy figure.
Minor faults aside, there’s no doubt Jacquot’s film is an intelligent, absorbing reworking of Mirabeau’s classic novel.