The Chambermaid on the Titanic

on August 14, 1998 by Kim Williamson
   The fanfare-backed blue-and-white logo of the Samuel Goldwyn Co.--having escaped, however scathed, the stations-of-the-cross distresses of bank calls, stock-ticker collapse and fire-sale asset appropriations by big media groups--returns to the bigscreen with this UGC co-production. Considering those turmoils of the past three years, "The Chambermaid on the Titanic" is a remarkable return to the winning ways of the late '80s and early '90s, when Goldwyn was releasing the likes of "La Femme Nikita," "Best Intentions" and "Il Ladro di Bambini"--if not quite an artistic success of those levels.
   The story--of a French foundry worker ("The Horseman on the Roof's" Olivier Martinez) married to one young woman ("Savage Nights'" Romane Bohringer) but who begins to weave for enraptured listeners tales of tryst with a beauty ("A Walk in the Clouds'" Aitana Sanchez Gijon) aboard the Titanic the night before it sailed--comes care of Bigas Luna. Surprisingly for a hot-blooded filmmaker (the likes of "Golden Balls" and "The Tit and the Moon") for whom scenery--and his players--are usually defined in terms of bare breasts and buttocks, Luna's work here is restrained almost to the point of classicism. The results, though leaning to the good, are mixed. He opens the film with blast-furnace imagery, but his narrative never gains an equally molten quality, primarily because the main characters' emotions and rationales overall remain muted.
   A key question that audiences are likely to ask near the story's beginning--why really would a pretty chambermaid unknown to the foundry worker appear on his doorstep and ask to share his room--is finally answered near film's end. But the larger question, of exactly why he would be so smitten by this stranger when back home an equal beauty who he loved and who loved him deeply was waiting for his return, is never made clear. There is no "hole in his life" that requires such filling, and without that audiences are likely to find the central character a somewhat distant commodity--which dilutes the intended romanticism.
   Still, there's obvious reason that "The Chambermaid on the Titanic" received this year's Goya awards for adapted screenplay (from the Didier Decoin novel) and costume design. In convincingly creating a world and ways of life now long gone, and abetted by a widescreen sumptuousness in which the camera still makes sure to record every muddy puddle, Luna makes us "see" his characters and their times with a strength rare even for the art-house.    Starring Romane Bohringer, Olivier Martinez and Aitana Sanchez Gijon. Directed by Bigas Luna. Written by Bigas Luna, Cuca Canals and Jean-Louis Benoit. Produced by Yves Marmion and Daniel Toscan du Plantier. A Samuel Goldwyn release. Romantic drama. Unrated. French-language; English subtitles. Running time: 90 min.
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