Some films are fated to end up as footnotes to history. Witness the French/Italian/Spanish coproduction "The Chambermaid on the Titanic," already rechristened "The Chambermaid" to avoid charges of capitalizing on the unprecedented success of last year's Kate-and-Leo tour de force. No matter how much distance is imposed between the two films, however, "Chambermaid" is best viewed as a wicked (if unintentional) parody of the public frenzy that's caused all of us to subconsciously transform our perception of the Titanic disaster from that of a real-life tragedy into a fictional, yet irresistible, love story.
Horty is a French foundry worker who's the runaway winner in the employee iron-man competition his company stages for sport. His prize is a trip for one to Southampton to watch the departure of the R.M.S. Titanic as it sets sail on its infamous maiden voyage. Granting actual passage on the vessel is apparently beyond his employers' resources, but everyone around Horty seems to feel that merely being present at the historic event is an honor to be cherished, and one that will change him on a profound level.
Horty's world is indeed turned upside down by his English vacation, but not for the reasons his friends and superiors had foreseen. When one of the ship's beautiful young chambermaids arrives at his hotel door with nowhere to stay, he reluctantly allows her to spend the night in his room. What happens in the ensuing hours before the Titanic sails is deliberately kept ambiguous; it's the possibility of what MAY have transpired that drives the remainder of the story.
Returning home to France, Horty is shocked by the rumor that the wife he left behind may have slept with his boss while he was away. Jealous and angry, he begins spinning tales of the alleged erotic tryst he's just experienced with the mysterious chambermaid. His wife is predictably outraged ... that is, until she learns that the townspeople are paying good money to listen to Horty's possibly made-up stories at the local pub. As long as the cash keeps rolling in, she gives him her blessing to continue. And when a traveling impresario offers to put the show on the road, she encourages her husband to jump at the offer. Soon, Horty is airing his dirty laundry in front of total strangers, embellishing the details to place him on the deck of the Titanic when the iceberg struck. Some props are added for theatrical effect as well, including a papier-mâché Cupid that flies over the audience like a plastic skeleton at a screening of a William Castle horror movie.
This "Titanic" is a humble, sly work, more concerned with lampooning our propensity for voyeurism than feeding it with any of its own visual wizardry. There's a pretty dissolve between a glass of alcohol and a shot of the Southampton waters, but for the most part, the emphasis remains on the characters and their subservience to the gods of theater and commerce. Those of us who contributed our share to the record-breaking take of James Cameron's opus don't need to be told too much about the nosy gawkers who line up to hear Horty's sordid tales, however, they're us, in all of our shallow glory.
The film's climax, one of the few that deserves the appellation "shock ending," neatly identifies the point at which sex, obsession, money and power converge in all of our psyches. Would it be too much to suggest that "Chambermaid at the White House" would make an eminently logical follow-up?
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