Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The worldly Célestine (Jeanne Moreau) comes to a provincial French town to become a
chambermaid at the Monteil estate. Her new employers are a collection of strange behaviors:
Madame (Francoise Lugagne) is obsessed with cleanliness and order, the patriarch (Jean Ozenne)
engages her in nightly shoe-fetish games; the husband (Michel Picoli) constantly tries to take
advantage of the hired women, and the groundskeeper Joseph (Georges Géret) is a closet
Fascist and molester of small girls. Célestine tries not to get involved in the petty
relationships of the Monteils and their feuding neighbor, until the savage killing of a sweet
local child steers her into an active role in finding the murderer.
Often overlooked, this adaptation of an erotic French novel shows Luis Buñuel's
storytelling talent working at a more refined level than many of his more showy surrealist
masterpieces. The blasphemous Viridiana and Simon del desierto are more
shockingly entertaining, and puzzle pictures like The Discreet Charm of
the Bourgeoisie are more likely to flatter intellectuals, but Diary of a Chambermaid
is an almost straight drama. Whatever satire there may be is overshadowed by a somber
portrait of rural France as a haven for bigotry, anti-semitism, petty feuds and the oppressive
treatment of servants by an indolent and perverse landed gentry. The 'quaint' French
countryside takes on elements of Buñuel's earlier horror-documentary Las Hurdes, and is the
most critical film Savant has seen on France until the later The Sorrow and the
Herself a mildly-wicked Pollyanna, Célestine tries to stay neutral to the sexual overtures and
domination games she encounters. Her mistress speaks almost exclusively of the furniture and
bric-a-brac she covets; the master of the house even insists on changing Célestine's name to suit
his whim. Instead of rebuffing the constant advances of Monsieur and Joseph, she carefully
encourages them, almost as if curious to find out how low they'll descend in their selfish little
manias. This isn't the bald farce of the earlier Mexican Susana, where the intruder
into the bourgeois household is identified early on as a demon from hell. Célestine has her
own dark ambitions. The only untainted soul around is the grubby servant girl (for Buñuel,
uncharacteristically corruption-free) and Célestine forms a bond with her. When the girl is brutally
raped and murdered, Célestine uses her own erotic influence to assure herself of the killer's
guilt, before taking action.
Diary of a Chambermaid is beautifully crafted in the under-rated format of b&w 'scope.
(Is this Buñuel's only foray into a wide screen process?) Although more straightforward than
his other films, it's unmistakably 'Buñuel time' when women are made to parade in
awkward-looking high-button shoes, snails creep up the leg of dead child, and a butterfly is
blasted off a flower with a shotgun. Ever inching toward
squeamish details, Buñuel includes a gratuitous scene where it looks as if the repressive Madame is
conducting chemical experiments in a secret lab - only to be revealed mixing some noxious concoction
for (if I'm not mistaken) an antiquated douche apparatus. I'll expect corrections
if I'm wrong here ... but the queasy inference Savant reached is that she's making her vagina as
inhospitable as possible for her unwelcome husband. Even if I'm off base, it's a natural
assumption after El, where the viewer has to conclude that a deranged jealous husband is preparing
to sew up his wife's vagina! How Buñuel gets away with these little obscenities is a marvel ...
he's the Ernst Lubitsch of implied perversity.
The image of France portrayed is unflattering to the point of libel. Buñuel lived in France
in the time period of the film (post-1932, unless the model of the neighbor's car is an anachronism)
and he takes bitter pride in portraying the rich and poor alike as insensitive bigots. The
Monteils wage a stupid war with their neighbor, an ex-Captain who cuts off tree branches that hang
over the property line and regularly entertains himself by tossing his garbage over the fence.
Any association with the Army is unassailable, as it is assumed that a soldier's honor trumps that
of a civilian at all times. The child molester proudly exhibits his army credentials in his
room, as if keeping a tidy house and having an honorable discharge were status enough to commit
murder with impunity. When other insults fail, everyone accuses anyone else of being a
jew, and Joseph moonlights as a right-wing activist, writing hateful leaflets and dreaming of killing
all the jews. On the domestic level, the power the landowners have over their menials is
appalling: sexual favors are a given in a relationship where the boss gets to decide what reality
is, and can impose themselves on any part of their employees' lives.
If Diary of a Chambermaid ends up less memorably than other Buñuel melodramas, it's because
he's so uncompromising with his ending. Célestine's vengeance is unsuccessful, as the killer is soon
free to promote fascism. She's no crudader; her personal ambition is to
join the leisure class herself ... although at the fadeout, she might be making plans to rid
herself of her new husband. Without the active sense of evil humor of some of his other
films, Diary leaves a subtly sick, but less-than-explosive impression.
Criterion's DVD of Diary of a Chambermaid is a beauty, with every nuance of its delicate
photography brought out by the crisp detail of 16:9 enhancement. A new interview is included
with writer Jean-Claude Carrière. This was the first of his writing collaborations
with Buñuel that would last until the death of the merry misanthropist in 1983. A nice French
trailer is also included, that intelligently promotes the movie, with the aid of an 'interview' with
star Moreau. There's also a written transcript of an enjoyable talk with Bunuel printed on
the folded DVD insert.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Diary of a Chambermaid rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with the Screenwriter, trailer.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 9, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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