Titanic Sex Tale
'Chambermaid' Lampoons The Media's Fascination With The Old Ooh-La-La.
By James DiGiovanna
JANUARY 11, 1999: FOR THE MOST part, French cinema is pretty mediocre. This puts it well above American cinema, of course, but somewhat below Swedish and Italian cinema.
The problem in France is much like that in the U.S., in that a single story has come to dominate film. In America, it's about two stupid guys who blow things up (Mel Gibson has perfected this role, but Jim Carrey and Randy Quaid and many others have worked hard to establish the foundations for this deeply American persona); in France, it's about a man who develops an obsessive fixation on a beautiful but characterless woman, and then either the man or the woman goes insane or dies or something. It's been done well on occasion (The Hairdresser's Husband, White, A Heart in Winter) but once you've seen it 12 or 15 times you've pretty much covered all the angles on this plot. With that in mind, JJ Bigas Lunas, the director of Chambermaid on the Titanic, has one-upped this standard story by making a movie about that movie. How very French, eh?
Chambermaid isn't perfect, but it builds momentum nicely and comments on its own genre, and on mass media in general, in a way that's clever and reasonably unpretentious... or at least as unpretentious as a film from the country that brought us deconstructionism, duck a l'orange and the Maginot Line can be.
The opening of Chambermaid is not promising: It's set in a grimy town in the Lorraine region of France at the turn of the century. Scenes of uncomfortable workers in the foundry hint at a maudlin story about noble proletariats scraping by in their miserable existence, a plot which demands so much reverence that it usually sacrifices entertainment lest the audience not be able to immediately empathize with the pain of the workers.
Luckily, the movie shifts gears, and does so through a surprising series of plot turns.
The fastest, strongest and by far most beautiful of the factory workers, a young man named Horty (played by Olivier Martinez, who has the face of a Greek god, if Greek gods had really pouty lips), wins a trip to England to see the launching of the Titanic. He is reluctant to go and leave his only slightly less beautiful wife behind, but is obliged to do so because the contest is run by his boss, who would be insulted if Horty stayed home; and besides, the boss wants a crack at Horty's woman.
Zoe, Horty's wife, is played by Romane Bohringer, who is the weakest element of the movie. She previously starred in the unintentionally hilarious Total Eclipse, and the unintentionally hilarious Mina Tannenbaum. She's actually pretty good at being unintentionally hilarious, but that's a skill ill-suited for this outing.
While Horty is in England, a chambermaid from the Titanic (I assumed one would appear at some point) asks if she can share his hotel room. She's beautiful, he lets her in, they go to sleep, in the morning she's gone to get on the boat. It's hard for a film-going audience to believe that two such attractive people could get in bed and not have sex, and when Horty returns to his little village, the locals, who are essentially cinematic metaphors for the modern movie watcher, can't believe it either.
They also tell Horty, probably falsely, that his wife has been doing his boss. So, to overcome his shame at being cuckolded, Horty begins to tell a myth about his romance with the chambermaid. He's so good at spinning out the dramatic erotica (enlivened in the film by scenes of his fictional romantic exploits) that he becomes a big hit, and each night everyone in town gathers to hear his increasingly juicy and creative stories.
At this point, the central conceit of the film becomes clear: Horty is basically the television of his time, and his ratings are through the roof.
Of course, his wife doesn't like this, so she asks him to stop, but when she sees the money that it brings in (the tavern keeper where Horty tells his tales pays him to bring in customers) she allows it to go on, on the condition that Horty tells everyone that it's all made up.
In spite of knowing that his stories are not true, the crowds keep coming. Horty's tales sexualize his little village, setting off a frenzy of marital bliss. It's an interesting twist on the Republican notion that sex in the media will negatively influence the populace: In Horty's village, sex in the media certainly influences the people, but for some reason no one seems to think that having more sex is a bad thing. I guess these primitive French villagers haven't yet come to our enlightened notions of morality.
At this point, the film picks up speed and continues to gain momentum as Horty's fame spreads and the opportunity for analogy to modern entertainment media grows. I'd rather not spoil any of the further plot twists, but the film becomes increasingly engaging and comic.
Unfortunately, the ending is a bit obvious and weak, and there are moments when the movie slips away from being a reflexive commentary on the romance film and becomes, basically, a romance film. Still, Chambermaid has the benefits of an extremely original story and a self-awareness that doesn't undercut the simpler pleasures of the film.
And best of all, of course, it is so very French.
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