“Le Journal d’une femme de chambre” (1964)
Considering the rich mining afforded by Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel “Le Journal d’une femme de chamber”, a work encompassing pointedly satiric critical observations on class, sexuality and religion, a cinematic realization by surrealist and moral provocateur Luis Buñuel would seem a match made in atheist’s heaven. Interestingly, rather than using the material’s scathing repudiation of differences in the behavioral psychology between the classes- as all are evaluated as equally corrupt, hypocritical and venal regardless of social ranking –Buñuel has made the curious determination to strip the novel of its thematic essence and reduce the material to that of a weakly ironic and supremely unsatisfying melodrama.
Célestine is an attractive and inexplicably stylish woman who arrives by train from Paris to assume the role of chambermaid for The Priory, a country villa occupied by M. Rabour (Jean Ozenne) a shoe fetishist, his frigid daughter Mme. Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), whose a penchant toward the miserly substitutes for her lack of emotional intimacy, and her husband M. Monteil (Michel Piccoli), who compensates for a barren marital bed by impregnating a succession of the female domestics. Also present in the household are a number of other servants, including the brutish fascistic Joseph (Georges Géret) and the simple cook Marianne (Muni). Célestine, after some initial petty annoyances from her mistress, finds that through her attractiveness, subtle guile and sophistication, she is able to sufficiently influence those about her (with the exception of Joseph), to exert a comfortable measure of control over her circumstances. However, with the sudden brutal rape and murder of Claire (Dominique Sauvage), a young local girl to whom Célestine had developed a protective maternal attachment, her skill to emotionally manipulate is put to the test, when Joseph declares his love for her at the same time Célestine grows certain that he is the sought-after killer.
Mirbeau’s novel is nothing if not episodic, with events related in a nonlinear fashion, and occurring through Célestine’s experiences in several different households. In choosing to simplify events and compositing the eccentricities of dozens of characters into a few, Buñuel and his collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière have managed the unenviable trick of making each of the characters far less distinctive than in the book by virtue of rendering the individual quirks as highlighted behavioral quotations rather than as characteristics organic to the personalities portrayed. What is missing is Célestine’s invaluable first-person perspective (it is presented as a diary, after all); a voice that speaks with a bitterly incisive disgruntlement based upon the burdens (both in childhood and professionally) of her existence, whereas many of her actions are contrary to the percipient filter of unforgivingly comic mockery through which makes her derisive judgments against society at large. The literary Célestine exists as an existential contradiction, in that despite her observational acuity on the behavior of others, her own actions are incompatible with her assertions of good sense. Regardless of the lessons of experience, she falls chronically vulnerable to the most fleeting display of tenderness, abandoning all of her defensive instincts and allowing these temporary emotional intimates to become literal agent provocateurs, whose inevitable betrayals contribute to a heightened bitterness in Célestine’s diary entries. Ideally, Célestine should be portrayed as a damaged innocent corrupted by a desperation for socially elevating, whereas in Buñuel’s reinterpretation she is a sophisticate who is noticeably more worldly than both her fellow domestics and members of the bourgeois class; so much so that her apparent ease with bending every situation to her comfortably controllable level is suggestive of an opportunistic huckster, relatively unfazed by those about her who she visibly regards as inferiors. This attitudinal shift makes the supporting characters gullible and foolish, but without the requisite satirical edge that made the novel’s portrait of ethical absurdity rise above the banal. In Buñuel’s softened rendition, the characters are victims of their eccentricities rather than deliberately mean-spirited or venal, rendering Célestine’s generally disaffected attitude all the more trivializing of the story’s intended theme.
The casting of the estimable Jeanne Moreau as Célestine only magnifies the problem. Being one of the worlds most intelligent actresses (in regard to the fact that her conveyance of intelligence is absolute), she manages to telegraph every annoyance as if playing to a fourth wall, in endless exercises of mute editorializing. It’s a witty performance yet, in the end, far too subdued in it’s expression of justified outrage. Without the force of Mirbeau’s satirical bite, “Le Journal d’une femme de chamber” becomes a hollow morality play. There is no passion in the piece, merely actors going through the motions of what, by virtue of removing the rich, satirically caustic subtext, becomes merely a toothless portrait of classist cliché.
There are only two truly effective moments in the film. The first is M. Monteil’s crude seduction (actually, a statement of forced sexual intent) of Marianne, resulting in a single teardrop from her eye; a quietly devastating reaction of internalized despair to the devaluation of a life through casual exploitation, and the second is the camera’s discovery of young Claire’s body, a shot so beautifully composed, that it demands an even greater sense of outrage that such a vulgar tableau could be rendered with such obscene artistry.
“Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice” (2014)
Fidelity has long been used as a thematic excuse for Hollywood excursions into cheap eroticism, using the subject as an excuse for glossy portraits of high profile versions of Joe Sarno films so convoluted in their melodrama they would make Douglas Sirk weep.
“Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice”, begins rather inauspiciously with a long shot of a nude woman swimming in the ocean, a moment which suggests both innocence and sexuality, a lyrical balance which will define this extraordinary debut feature by Lucie Borieteau. The woman is thirty year old Alice (Ariane Labed), who has been assigned as a second engineer of the freighter Fidelio, leaving her boyfriend, graphic designer Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie), for an extended period in a situation of long distance career separation that has been well traveled in the movies (the examples in the war genre alone are too lengthy to contemplate), but seldom with the complexity of feeling and rarely, if ever, with such a frank honesty regarding the equality of desires within men and women, a perspective not limited through overt sexuality (there is that, but in a move of startling originality, the sex scenes actually advance character development) but in the ways both genders find definition by shared experience with loneliness, relationship insecurity and a palpable fear that one will be unable to find someone who might significantly ease the absence of reciprocal intimacy.
Alice’s world is a world of men, her romantic isolation magnified by the fact that she is the lone woman among the Fidelio’s crew, but in a twist that allows for a naturally reactive character development rather than narrative contrivance, there isn’t a hint of sexism on the ship. Regardless of her gender, little is made of this division, a perspective that is both refreshing and essential in dispensing with feminist manifestos, thus allowing the film to examine the more valuable, less thematically restrictive shared human experience. Alice is truly one with the crew, and with divisive gender boundaries neutralized, the film is able to realize a non-critical but realistic dynamic in which individual personalities rally in the comfort of the company of the situational peer rather than one determined by biology. It is a camaraderie born of voluntary inclusion rather than dictated by social doctrine. Alice is openly welcomed, without a hint of self-consciousness, into the fold of raucous fraternity; the unfiltered coarseness of macho braggadocio and profane jocularity is shared with Alice, not as acts of humiliation, but of bonding.
Alice’s odyssey of self-discovery is inextricably linked with her term on the ship which separates her from a relationship with Felix which by all evidence is loving and a source of mutual emotional stability, though once at sea, she revisits a passionate relationship with her first great love Gael (Meluil Pouprod), who is now, as fate would have it, the captain of the Fidelio. Later, she will bed a young cadet, mirroring her early sexual experience with Gael. If Alice’s actions initially appear as a heartless cuckolding of her boyfriend, it later becomes clear that what might be perceived as disloyalty was, in Alice’s mind, a casual act of need; in essence, she has an itch that needs scratching. One of the more interesting aspects of the script by Borieteau, Clara Bourreau and Mathilde Boisseleau is in it’s generously democratic view of sex; that a woman is capable of being equally undaunted by her sexual hunger as her male compatriots. However, it is in this balancing of her sexual instincts which, when a compromising photo is discovered, endangers her commitment to Felix, that the question of self and selflessness, of the attractiveness of romanticization of love versus genuine emotional and spiritual fidelity comes into play. Alice’s dilemma is hauntingly mirrored through the diary entries of her deceased predecessor; the despairing passages acknowledging a concession to a fear of never confronting nor experiencing a true romantic intimacy.
Director Lucie Boriteau’s sense of place is keenly attuned to the dramatic core of each scene, and the sequences featuring overt sexuality are starkly rendered and refreshingly adult in all of their aspects: playful, passionate, emotionally complex, with the sexual acts given invaluable psychological context removing any pull toward the gratuitous; a scene in which a lonely Alice masturbates in her bunk plays as a vulnerable act of desire and loneliness, rather than yet another occasion for heated peepshow eroticism. Director Boriteau’s accomplishment is significant: in “Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice”, the sex scenes are instrumental in defining character.
Skilled though it is in direction and writing, the film ultimately succeeds or fails in the starring performance of Ariane Labed as Alice; a quietly accomplished piece of work illuminating the internal struggles of a woman seeking love while bridging the chasm of contradictions between the heart and the mind.
One of the obvious ingredients comprising the classic American romantic comedy- an ingredient long since abandoned in the genre, subject to the coarsening depiction of the relationship between the sexes since the too long delayed growing spurts misguidedly wasted in the immediate post-Production Code era -is charm.
Not unlike the unaccountably vilified storytelling element known as sentimentality, charm has been almost unilaterally forsaken, as well as castigated, as old-fashioned, squirm inducing, or, worst of all, unrelatable to a target audience whose cinematic emotional appetites are deemed to be best served with quick cut jabs to the viscera (thus the saturation- along with unrelated fiscal calculations involving bleeding a stone dry -of films unenhanced by nor appropriate to their force fed screenings in such sensorial assault formats as 3D and Imax) and narratives expressing cynicism rather than even the pretense of emotional purity regardless of any synthetic basis to its manufacture. However, back to the subject of charm; that ineffable quality of which the small, unassuming French romantic comedy “Populaire” contains in sufficient abundance as to put that most neglected of expressions on the faces of its audience: a smile.
Jeanne (a delightful Deborah Francois) is a small town girl with the modest dream of becoming a secretary, despite a complete inability to perform the simplest office task without creating destructive chaos. She is an adorable klutz who has one oddball skill- the ability to rapidly type with two fingers -that (for reasons left sensibly, though not critically, unexplained) ignites a sporting competitive drive in a prospective boss, insurance agent Louis Échard (Romain Duris), who agrees to retain Jeanne as long as she competes in a regional speed typing contest. Losing in the finals, Louis redoubles his efforts, moving Jeanne into his home and putting her through a course of relentless ten fingered exercises, including piano lessons by his ex-girlfriend Marie (Bérénice Bejo), the wife of his best friend Bob (Shaun Benson), training her to compete and win a series of regional and national speed typing competitions. he can train her to compete and win a series of regional and national speed typing competitions. Though they cohabitate platonically, romantic feelings blossom almost immediately, though for reasons which will inevitably be explained, Louis is hesitant to pursue. One of the delights of the film is in seeing Jeanne’s proclivity in speed typing increase in concert with a barely repressed romantic fire, with the resulting frustration fueling her fire in the increasingly fierce competitions.
The film is a deliberate throwback to the romantic comedies of the late 1950’s and early 60’s to which the likes of Doris Day, Sandra Dee and Rock Hudson found permanently formative shadings to the screen personae, yet unlike those studio-born frothy confections, in “Populaire” the comedic elements are enhanced with subtle but substantive grains of deeper psychological roots: the assertive male is shown to be burdened with an almost crippling self-doubt when a relationship approaches the doorway to emotional intimacy, whereas the ingenue is both driven and haunted by a desperation to escape what she perceives as a loveless domestic existence of banality, reinforced by her strained relationship with her demanding though unimaginative father from whom she never registers approval. Interestingly, despite the periodic insertions of material that grant a trace of gravitas to the characters, none of this detracts from the script’s comedic destination. Quite the contrary, the intermittent elements exploring fragility make the characters more endearing and worthy of empathy, lending incalculable levitation to the film’s romantic arc. It’s as if a hint of Sirkian melodrama is cleansed of all of the lurid psychological underpinnings and made palatable as filtered through the candy cane values of MGM musicals. The giddiness exuded by the film is palpable in melodious bursts of romantically charged moments that are the emotional equivalent of feverishly heartfelt love ballads; a feeling emphasized by the infectious and witty period lounge scoring by Rob and Emmanuel d’Orlando.
What ensures a healthy communion between the variable standard romantic comedy tropes and the more profoundly realized emotional stakes is the context of competitiveness, both literally in the numerous fast-typing contests, and a more nuanced conflict between the hesitant head and the rhapsodic heart in the continuing search for love. The direction of first-time feature director Régis Roinsard displays an admirable dedication to the traditions of 1950’s Hollywood and a meticulous eye for detail in replicating the feel of the era while the script by Roinsard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt achieves a seamless balance between a nostalgic innocence and a refreshingly uncynical and sympathetic appreciation of the paralyzing anxieties that often accompany unrequited love. Interestingly, the emotional climax of the film occurs outside of the central romantic dynamic, but rather in an incisively written scene between Louis and Marie, with the latter revealing a heartbreaking understanding into Louis’ source of self-doubt; a painful revelation which nevertheless leads to a credible and satisfying liberation. There is not a weak link in the cast, with Deborah François and Romain Duris generating a genuine old Hollywood chemistry, most ably supported by the talented and continually surprising Bérénice Bejo.
A dizzying, stylish amalgam of Stanley Donen and Frank Tashlin, with a dash of sexiness particularly characteristic of the French, “Populaire” is irresistibly appealing.