The Chambermaid

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: J.J. Bigas Luna

REVIEWED: 08-31-98

If we can forget Leonardo, the billion-dollar-plus box office, and James Cameron's arrogance for a moment, Bigas Luna's The Chambermaid (which was, until last week, entitled The Chambermaid on the Titanic) is the best movie made about the ill-fated White Star liner. Rather than literalizing what previously could only be imagined, as does Cameron's epic, Luna's Chambermaid re-creates the process of the imagination itself, how it transforms the trauma and banality of everyday reality into the consolation of fiction. Although the film defers to Cameron's leviathan in production costs and box office, its treatment of the same themes of love, catastrophe, and the redeeming power of fantasy is a lot more subtle and satisfying.

That reality initially is the grim and grimy drudgery of turn-of-the-century industrialism in the Lorraine, in a village of sooty tenements, muddy streets, and a ubiquitous gray cut only by the infernal burst of fire from the foundry furnaces. In an annual contest that is a metaphor for their oppression, the workers engage in a Sisyphean race as, laden with bags of coal, they engage in a torturous climb up a mountain of slag. The winner is the strapping, melancholy Horty (Olivier Martinez, the continent's answer to DiCaprio), and his prize is a ticket to Southampton to watch the launching of that fruit of capitalism's exploitation of people like himself, the Titanic.

In fact, there are two tickets, but the second is covertly pocketed by Simeon (Didier Bezace), the foundry's sleazy owner, who, not content with screwing his employees, has designs on Horty's comely wife, Zoe (Romane Bohringer). Ignorant of this deception, Horty crosses the Channel and is dutifully bedazzled by the glitz, opulence, and empty triumph of the big ship's doomed maiden voyage.

The highpoint of Horty's journey, though, is not the launching but the unexpected visit of Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a woman who claims to a chambermaid on the ship and asks whether she can share his hotel room. It proves a night not remembered, as Horty awakes to find Marie gone and only vestiges of an erotic dream remaining. Neither is it clear what happened back home while Horty was away; Zoe triumphantly, if a bit guiltily, announces that his boss has given him a promotion.

Not all is lost of his prize, however; Horty has a photo of Marie shot by chance as she toted luggage on board dressed in her fetishistic maid's cap and apron. He takes it to the local bar, where, goaded by his jealousy, by his lascivious fellow workers, and by a continually replenished glass of plum brandy, he begins to recount the story of the chambermaid, embellishing it in each retelling, incorporating bits and pieces of his relationship with Zoe and tawdry clichés from popular romance. The story sparks something in its listeners' drab lives, and though he gets fired from his job and alienates Zoe, crowds gather to hear it. Soon even Zoe is won over by the show -- the bar owner is giving Horty a cut of his profits, and besides, it's all made up anyway.

Among those attending is Zeppe (Aldo Maccione), proprietor of a traveling theater. A specialist in catastrophes, Zeppe feels his own Vesuvius bit has gotten old, so he takes Horty and his modern-day disaster story on the road with him (the wagon in the countryside evokes another disaster movie, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal). Like Cameron's Titanic, which also focuses on a picture of a beloved woman, Horty's performance expands into preposterous melodrama with escalating special effects -- an on-stage blow-up of Marie's photo, a fog horn, onions for tears, even Zoe in maid regalia struggling against cardboard waves. Ultimately, and deftly, reality intrudes once again, but art remains ambiguously triumphant.

Superbly acted -- Martinez conveys the tension between genuine passion and its fabrication, and Bohringer fluctuates among outrage, guilt, vanity, and greed -- Luna's film (a previous effort was the cruder Jamón Jamón) crackles with a shrewd visual poetry and a wry eye for irony, heartbreak, and the salvation of kitsch. His use of dissolves -- in one sequence, a shot of the photo on the bar melts into an image of the liner that proves to be a reflection in a puddle that Marie and Horty, in flashback/fantasy, splash through -- captures magically the processes of invention, memory, and sublimation. The Chambermaid won't leave millions in tears like Cameron's Titanic, but it does radiantly demonstrate what made them weep.

--Peter Keough

Other Films by J.J. Bigas Luna
Chambermaid on the Titanic

Film Vault Suggested Links
Sense and Sensibility
Mrs. Brown
Legends of the Fall

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