James Bond co-star, Lea Seydoux, plays a turn-of-the-century servant using her wit and wiles to forge her own path, joining an all-star parade of trailblazing women at the Berlin film festival Saturday.
The 29-year-old French actress takes the role of Celestine in Benoit Jacquot's adaptation of the groundbreaking 1900 novel "Diary of a Chambermaid", one of 19 films in competition at the 65th annual event.
Escaping a childhood of grinding poverty, Celestine becomes a handmaiden at the sprawling home of a wealthy couple in the provinces.
Her strict new mistress, suspicious of her beauty and insolent manner — Celestine often insults her under her breath — makes her already grey life miserable, while her frisky master bombards her with unwanted advances.
In keeping with her role, she spends much of her time in the shadows, observing the power dynamics and vulnerabilities of her employers.
When she notices that the tight-lipped groundskeeper (Vincent Lindon) has fallen for her, she begins to hatch a plot to get the better of her superiors and leave servitude behind.
Jacquot said he aimed to make a period piece, complete with a subplot linked to France's Dreyfus affair, while turning the spotlight on a "revolution" against enduring sexual and class exploitation.
"What interested me immediately in this story of a young chambermaid — and at this time it really was a kind of slavery — was finding the contemporary echoes," Jacquot, 68, told AFP in an interview.
Jacquot said Seydoux, who shared the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2013 for "Blue is the Warmest Colour", had devoured the role which Oscar winner Marion Cotillard was once slated to play.
He said he regretted that the actress, who was in Britain filming the next James Bond movie "Spectre", could not attend the red-carpet premiere of "Diary of a Chambermaid" in Berlin.
"That's why I hope the next James Bond film flops," he quipped.
Festival director Dieter Kosslick said the 2015 selection was marked by "strong women in extreme situations".
The 11-day event opened Thursday with French actress Juliette Binoche playing early 20th-century explorer Josephine Peary, who follows her husband on a disastrous trek as he attempts to reach the North Pole, in "Nobody Wants the Night".
Hot on its heels came another real-life heroine, with Nicole Kidman cast as British adventurer and spy Gertrude Bell, who helped redraw the map of the Middle East as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, in Werner Herzog's "Queen of the Desert".
Both films drew lacklustre reviews, and were outshone in critical reception by a small-budget Guatemalan film premiering Saturday, "Ixcanul Volcano".
Greeted by warm applause at a press preview, the debut feature by Jayro Bustamante is set among indigenous people living a hand-to-mouth existence on a coffee plantation.
Its story revolves around 17-year-old Maria, who dreams of running away to the United States with her indebted boyfriend, who has a plan to cross Mexico and the Rio Grande and move into "a house with a garden".
She loses her virginity to him and despite his assurances that "it can't happen the first time", gets pregnant.
Maria's parents, however, have already arranged a marriage with a foreman on the farm to ensure they can stay in their home in the lush fields at the foot of a volcano.
Maria's mother, in a widely hailed performance by Mayan theatre actress Maria Telon, tries to help her abort the child but after several failed attempts gives up, declaring "it has a strong will to live."
A horrifying plot twist in the final act underscores the powerlessness of Guatemala's peasant class, Bustamante, 37, told AFP.
"There were issues I wanted to talk about with the film, but I did not want to write a treatise," he said. "I presented an ethnic group, but didn't want to slip into folklore."
The festival runs until February 15th.