Diary of a Chambermaid is the story of a woman who wants to “fix” her life, but has no idea how to do so, and no one to help her fix it. During the period in which the movie takes place (France, 1900) the only financial help a single woman not born into a wealthy family could get was from a man – either by finding a “sponsor” or a husband – by becoming a servant or a teacher if she were single, or by getting into the world’s oldest profession.
Célestine (played by Léa Seydoux) is a chambermaid whose assets are her street smarts, her mental strength and her looks, and she relies on these tools to get her through much of life’s adversity. It is the story of many uneducated and/or undereducated, poor, unskilled women all over the world, historically and in the present day, who lack opportunities to advance in life and as a result wind up selling themselves short. It is a story as old as time; women being overpowered and oppressed by men in patriarchal societies, and the “underclass” serving as minions for the rich in one way or another. Being born poor is difficult enough, but to be a poor woman in 1900 anywhere was probably more than a bit daunting, to say the least; or so one could imagine.
Célestine is a beautiful, spirited girl. Diary of a Chambermaid chronicles the tragedies that have occurred in her young life thus far; going from house to house, master to master, in pursuit of some stability. Thanks in part to life’s circumstances, and in part to Célestine’s bad attitude and poor judgment, she has had quite a rough life – which causes her to have a bad attitude – which makes her life harder than it has to be – which gives her a bad attitude, and so the cycle goes… While other servants seem to manage to humbly resign themselves to a life of servitude, finding the silver linings of their situations (a kind-hearted master, a master who is not a molester, a master who molests but has a kind heart, etc.) , Célestine longs for something more, something different, something exciting, something she can excel at. She is perpetually restless as she plots and schemes and dreams of ways to make changes, but has trouble strategizing and thinking things through to their final, logical conclusion. Therefore, she sometimes makes less than smart decisions.
This movie gave a profound sense of sadness because Célestine believed that she was meant to be something more than a servant, but had no idea what that something else might be. How could she? So, she just kind of drifted through her life without direction, from job to job, doing work she didn’t particularly care about or enjoy. Occasionally, she would find some joy in her work, but whenever she did, it ended badly. Because of her bad attitude and how tough she had become in order to survive, she became hardened and somewhat bitter. In the end she winds up making what may have amounted to the most foolish decision of her life – or maybe not. One would have to watch the movie to judge for one’s self.
Diary of a Chambermaid earns 7 out of 10 bloops. It is a smart movie worth seeing. The acting was on point. Special mention should be made of Vincent Lindon, who gives a downright frightening performance as a seemingly nice man who just so happens to be an anti-Semite with a devious mind and a cruel streak. If you’re into French films, you may enjoy it, but honestly, it would make a really good Netflix pick as well.
Note: I did learn that Diary of a Chambermaid is a remake from a 1964 version that I have to watch now. Let’s hope it is on Netflix or Prime!