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Mythic Romance

[whitespace] The Chambermaid
She Who Waits: Romane Bohringer makes the best of a bad situation when her husband goes to see off the 'Titanic' in 'The Chambermaid.'

Bigas Luna's 'The Chambermaid' takes a reverse-angle view of popular 'Titanic' story

By Richard von Busack

AT THE Simeon Foundry in the French province of Lorraine in 1912, the workers are competing in an annual foot race. The hero of The Chambermaid is the open-hearth worker Horty (Olivier Martinez, the dark, brooding star of The Horseman on the Roof). Horty is the object of much envy and teasing, since his wife, Zoe (Romane Bohringer), is the prettiest woman in town. Horty wins the race, but he's depressed to learn that his prize is a ticket for one to attend the launching of the Titanic in Southampton. Sending Horty away is a deliberate trick by Mr. Simeon (Didier Bezace) to get Zoe alone for a week.

Dutifully--and improbably--Horty decides to travel alone to England. Out of place in a luxury hotel, Horty is accosted by Marie (Aitana Sánchez Gijón), a chambermaid on the ship. The woman is at first flirtatious and then bold. Director Bigas Luna (Jamón Jamón) obscures the outcome and cuts to the morning after. Back home, Horty starts to weave stories of his affair with the chambermaid to ease his pain over rumors that the boss has slept with his wife. Then the Titanic sinks, and the element of death puts an elegant finish on Horty's stories.

The Chambermaid examines the nature of romance--a fiction that's expanded in memory until it becomes a travesty of the truth. The dockside crowd express interest in the Titanic, but the throng is sedate, stately, quiet--not in near-hysteria, as in the crowd scenes in James Cameron's Titanic. Luna makes the ocean liner a beautiful thing, certainly, but it's not yet the great gilded ship of myth. Amusingly, Horty is so upset about leaving his wife behind that the Titanic itself barely captures his interest; visiting the docks, he has the air of a man on a slightly unpleasant business trip. It's when he comes back to his steel town that the ship starts to come to life in his memory. Of course, as in most romantic illusions, the fiction is exposed.

The casting removes much of the mystery, though. Gijón seems such a deliberate temptress that she can't have the purity Horty credits her with in his tales. And Bohringer looks so good and honest there's never real doubt that she's been faithful to Horty. Bohringer is not just the prettiest woman in the film, she's also the smartest--her roughhewn looks and husky voice remind one of a Demi Moore with brains. (She also provides a coincidental link with the star of Titanic; Bohringer played Mme. Verlaine in Total Eclipse against Leonardo DiCaprio's Rimbaud. Oh, how I hope those sappy teens who adore their Leo so much rent that movie and get a load of DiCaprio's sex scenes with a bald-headed David Thewlis!) Though the distributors of The Chambermaid (a.k.a. The Chambermaid on the Titanic) changed the title for fear of comparison with the great cinematic blockbuster, it is a smarter and far more elegant film. Certainly it gets into the heart of the matter. The central question is not why did the great ship go down? but why do we love to tell stories about it?

The Chambermaid (Unrated; 96 min.), directed by Bigas Luna, written by Cuca Canals, Jean-Louis Benoît and Luna, based on the novel by Didier Decoin, photographed by Patrick Blossier and starring Romane Bohringer and Olivier Martinez.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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