Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.
See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward,
but they have devised many schemes.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel apparently has great appeal in France, as this is its fourth adaptation. I have not seen any of the others (and they include two directed by the great Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel), but found Benoît Jacquot’s new version a good study of classicism and the attempt of an oppressed woman to fight back, or at least survive. (Jacquot is also the co-screenwriter with Helene Zimmer). France might consider itself as a republic, but its wealthy citizens regularly abused their power over those forced to serve them. And if the servant were a woman, she too often endured sexual abuse as well other indignities. So it was with Célestine (Léa Seydoux), the chambermaid of the title who has had to change jobs many times in the past.
Although Célestine is the central character, she should not be considered a pure-hearted heroine due to her scheming against her employers and her eventual willingness to go along with a man who might be a murderer. When we first see her she is in Paris seeking a new position at her employment agency. The woman who heads it, knowing well her history of quitting after a relatively brief time, tells her that she can have a position in the country. She does not want to leave Paris, but is given no choice if she wants to work. And so she arrives in Normandy at the comfortable home of Madame Lanlaire (Clotilde Mollet) and her husband, Monsieur Lanlaire (Herve Pierre). Monsieur almost right away fondles her when they are alone, and Madame proves to be a cruel, almost sadistic, employer, in one scene sending Célestine up and down the stairs several times to fetch sewing materials. She could easily have saved the winded employee a great deal of effort if she had included everything in her first demand, but she obviously loves to wild her power. She even chastises the maid for taking too long to return. Viewers would love to see her talk back to the vicious woman, but few if any of us have needed our job as badly.
Célestine befriends the plump cook, Marianne (Mélodie Valemberg), who tells her of her history of abuse over the years by a series of employers. Another Lanlaire employee is Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the gardener and coachman who at first merely grunts when Célestine speaks to him. At night he engages in a mysterious activity in his tool shed. Because he has worked long and faithfully for the Lanlaires, they trust him implicitly.
It is Joseph who introduces another theme that was prevalent when the novel was first published, anti-Semitism. France was deeply divided over what was called The Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was falsely convicted of sending military secrets to the German embassy. He was sentenced to the infamous prison on Devil’s Island, but his cause was taken up by many liberals, including writer Emil Zola whose open letter J’accuse, revealing that new evidence had been found, helped lead to a second trial in 1899. This one also ended in conviction, but settled nothing, the anti-clerical party continuing to advocate Dreyfus’s innocence. Eventually we learn that Joseph was printing and assembling anti-Semitic literature, and that he was being helped in its cost and distribution by the local Catholic priest.
There is an interval (possibly a flashback) in which Célestine has her most pleasant engagement: an elderly woman (Joséphine Derenne) hires her to be the caretaker for her grandson (Vincent Lacoste, laid so low by tuberculosis that he is an invalid. Instead of the shabby room with lathes showing through broken plaster at the Lanlaires’ she has a lovely wallpapered room. The summer she spends with them is her happiest memory, concluding with the pair becoming lovers. However, the young man’s death during their tryst brings this position to an end. Tellingly, despite his love for her, he had observed that she would “always be a poor little slave.” She herself had observed early in the film, “We must really have servitude in our blood.”
Thus Célestine is so desperate to escape her de facto slavery that she joins Joseph in an elaborate scheme that takes advantage of Madame Lanlaire’s trust in him. His goal is to obtain enough additional money to move to Cherbourg and set up a pub. He needs Célestine as his partner to attract customers to his schemes, and she needs him to escape a life sentence of servitude. The filmmaker offers no judgment on Célestine and her Faustian bargain with Joseph. Nor does anyone in the film denounce the unfair social strata and ingrained anti-Semitism in the manner of the prophet Amos. We are left to make our own judgments, but there are given plenty of evidence upon which to make them. There is even a brief flashback when a brothel madame, attracted by Célestine’s beauty, tries to convince her to join her group, arguing that she could make a lot of money with her looks. After seeing so much sexual abuse of servants the thought this plants in our minds is that there is little difference between the two professions. This is not a film for romantics, but it is a fascinating study of a particular abused character and of social oppression in general. We might be tempted to say society has come a long way since 1900, but only if we put side any thought of the sexual abuse of boys in the Catholic Church, the multitude of female accusers of Bill Cosby and of Roger Ailes, the light sentences dealt to athletes who rape young women, or even the less sensational fact that in this 21st Century a woman still almost always is paid less than a man for the same job.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. issue of Visual Parables.