A night to remember

A whale of a ship is just a bit player in The Chambermaid

You can't keep a good ship down. No sooner have a billion or so Titanic videos hit the shelves than a little-known Spanish moviemaker complicates the issue with a French-language film called, in English, The Chambermaid on the Titanic.

Cheap profiteering? An attempt to cash in?
Absolutely not. In fact Chambermaid has almost nothing to do with the doomed ocean liner other than invoking the long-established symbolism of its sinking as the death of the 19th century. We never even see the ship at sea.

Instead, director Bigas Luna, a former painter, has fashioned a rich meditation on the uses of imagination and the power of desire, adapted from a novel by Didier Decoin. James Cameron and his special-effects people might not get through the first 15 minutes of this, but that's no reason the rest of us shouldn't.

In the French province of Lorraine, in April 1912, a beleaguered steelworker named Horty (Olivier Martinez) wins the company's annual employee footrace, carrying a huge sack of slag on his back. His prize? The cunning company director, Simeon (Didier Bezace), sends Horty to Southampton to witness Titanic's sailing. Simeon's ulterior motive? Horty's lovely wife, Zoe (Romane Bohringer), is ambitious, and the town gossips say she's easy with her favor.

With Horty, we glimpse the White Star Line's great emblem of wealth in her slip, but little more. The real drama here starts to unfold when, on the night before the sailing, a ship's chambermaid named Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) knocks on Horty's hotel-room door, begging a place to stay for the night. Tomorrow she steams for New York City.

Thus is launched an emotional mystery. Upon returning home, the steelworker, wracked with jealousy by the rumors about his wife, captivates his co-workers down at the local boite with a tale about a night of passion with Marie. As Horty warms to his task, the story becomes more heated, detailed, and explicit, and his crowd grows. Luna intrigues us, meanwhile, with shifting planes of light and elaborate superimposition of imagery. When the Titanic sinks and Marie is presumably lost, Horty and his saga of doomed love become a sensation.

But what is true? What is fiction? Has Horty fallen in love or projected a fantasy onto an impoverished life? Spurred by Zeppe (Aldo Maccione), the director of a traveling theater, Horty and Zoe are drawn into an ever-deepening spiral of love, illusion, and envy.

Soon, nothing is what it first seemed--neither Horty's words, nor Zoe's supposed indiscretions, nor the identity of the wraith called Marie.

In this beautiful, complex, occasionally overwrought film, the Titanic is but a distant supporting player. What we see here is the portrait of an artist in the making, created by a desperate love, and portraits of the two women he changes through the force of his vision.

Sound interesting? It is. And this time you don't have to go down with the ship.

The Chambermaid on the Titanic.
Directed by Bigas Luna. Written by Bigas Luna, Cuca Canals, and Jean-Louis Benoit. Based on a novel by Didier Decoin. Starring Olivier Martinez, Romane Bohringer, and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. Opens Friday.

 
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