Onscreen, in everything from “Blue is the Warmest Color” to “Spectre,” Lea Seydoux tends to be emotionally remote, sometimes icy. In person, even over the phone from Paris, the actress is giggly, even while rhapsodising about the depth of her craft. It’s a far cry from her glowering turn in the new French drama “Diary of a Chambermaid,” which reunites her with her “Farewell, My Queen” director Benoit Jacquot.
Based on a 1900 novel by Octave Mirbeau — which has been famously filmed by both Jean Renoir (in 1946, with Paulette Goddard) and Luis Bunuel (in 1964, with Jean Moreau) — it stars Seydoux, 30, as a young women from Paris who finds herself in the countryside, working for a tyrannical Madame (Clotilde Mollet). Meanwhile she finds herself increasingly drawn to a severe colleague (Vincent Lindon), who has at least a couple dark secrets.
Benoit Jacquot is one of many singular filmmakers you’ve worked with. It seems directors are key for you.
I like to work with directors who have their own language. I like when it’s special, when it’s an adventure. I want to feel things when I play. I want to experience myself in a way.
What about Jacquot’s films speak to you?
What I like about him is his subtlety. He’s very smart, very intelligent. It’s very easy working with him. I feel I’m understood with him. I feel like he likes the way I express things, the way I play, the way I act. It’s nice to have someone who’s sensitive about the way you express yourself. He’s almost like a father. I feel very comfortable with him.
You’ve spoken about how you liked that Sidonie, the character you played in “Farewell, My Queen,” seemed opaque, because you could create her from scratch. Celestine in “Chambermaid” isn’t that vacant, but she sometimes does things that seem surprising, even shocking.
I think with both characters I’ve played for [Jacquot], there’s something mysterious. You want to know their secrets. It also gives you the freedom to be them, because nothing is too defined. It’s more about what’s not said than what’s said. You have to guess, in a way — guess their attitudes and feelings. For me and for the spectators, you can imagine what you want, in a way. It’s very French, really. [Laughs]
The things she does towards the end of the film are particularly mysterious.
Maybe I don’t understand the way she behaves towards the end. I can understand that she needs to escape from this world, from the bourgeoisie. She wants to be free. That’s what I understood about her. But she will never be free.
As “Chambermaid” goes on, and one prominent character is outed as a noted anti-Semite, it becomes clear this has much to say about the rise of bigotry going on today.
It shows the anti-Semitism that is now very strong. It says something about this world, that we have to be careful with racism. It’s a very modern subject.
In America we have deep-seated bigotry being activated by one of our presidential nominees.
It’s the same here. It’s terrible.
You’ve done your share of costume dramas. How does that affect your approach if you’re doing a film set in the past vs. the present?
For me, every film I do is a costume drama. Even if people wear jeans and a tee-shirt it’s a costume. It’s not really about the period. It’s more about the social context. It helps me become the role, to be the character, to be dressed as them. It gives a clue to the context.
I’m guessing being trapped inside a tight corset was a pretty physical reminder of this film’s social context.
It helped me understand the character. I played with the costume. When she had the beautiful dress and she goes to the church, she plays the costume. It means something. When she has her black dress and she’s working as the maid, it says something. You have to always play with the dresses.
So, in terms of costume, it’s not that different if you’re doing an austere period piece or a splashy Bond film?
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