In this rarely seen (or mentioned) Luis Bunuel film Jeanne Moreau plays Celestine a beautiful, beguiling chambermaid who hires on to work for an upper-class French bourgeois family and then has to deal with all of their oddities, hang-ups and prejudices.
Each of the male characters – including the head of the household, his son-in-law and the neighbor – takes a liking to Celestine - who represents a working class woman with upper class distinction.
In director Luis Bunuel's world no one escapes the scythe of his critical wit and, as always, surreal scenes of perversity lie just below the seemingly rational surface he presents. The time is the 1930's when fascism was on the rise and each of the upper class characters amply displays their conservative leanings.
And too, as in many of Bunuel's films, the characters deal with the sins of their sexual vanity. Monsieur Rabour has an amusing foot fetish, his daughter Madame Montiel is an uptight woman who is pained by sex and disdains her husband Monsieur Montiel (Michel Piccoli) who is so desperately in need of 'amour fou' he chases any servant he can get his hands on. The neighbor too -- a retired army Captain who has a tendency to throws all his trash over the fence into the Rabour's yard -- proposes marriage to Celestine. She amusingly leads them on but never so much that they make any real romantic gains on her.
One of the more detestable men who take a liking to Celestine is Joseph (Georges Geret) a local handyman on the estate who has a nasty reactionary streak in him. He represents all that was wrong with 1930's France. But, just to add a little edge to the film, Celestine seems to take a liking to him.
Midway through a young girl is murdered and the film takes on the element of a murder mystery. Celestine suspects it may be Joseph so she schemes to get him to admit he is the murderer. But Bunuel isn't too interested in making the film into an all out Hitchcock-type mystery - instead he is more interested in the character's eccentric lives and their moral dilemnas.
The film was originally shot in Franscope (which is widescreen anamorphic 2:35 to 1 aspect ratio) and it looks stunning. It's one of the best looking of Bunuel's black & white films mainly because there are a good number of deep focus shots that transfer well to DVD. There is some compression artifact in the indoor scenes but it's not enough to become irritating. The film doesn't have great contrast in it's images instead it is more on the gray side mainly due to lighting techniques and because many of the outdoor scenes have a lot of misty fog in the background. There are occasional scratches and dirt throughout the print but overall it's not too noticeable.
The sound was transferred from a 35mm magnetic track and is presented monaural. The film is in French and it sounds very good. There is a little bit of hiss noise on the track but it's not bad enough to bother most viewers.
The only extras on the disc are an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and a trailer. The Jean-Claude Carriere interview is 19 minutes long and mainly consists of him reminiscing about Bunuel and the many films they collaborated on over the years. He really doesn't talk too much about "Diary of a Chambermaid" but he has enough good stories to make it more than worth watching especially if you're a Bunuel fan.
There is also an interesting five-minute vintage trailer that was done at the time and is a rather unique since it uses a voice-over narration interview with Jeanne Moreau rather than some hyped-up sales pitch. On the jacket cover there is a great transcript of a long interview with Bunuel about the film and a good lengthy essay by Michael Atkinson. The film is 98 minutes long and there are 32 chapters and it is enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions.
Even though "Diary of a Chambermaid" is one of Bunuel's most straight-forwardly told films (there are no dream sequences) it still has an edge and a certain sly wit that can only be understood in terms of all of the films that he made. Perhaps because it lacks Bunuels trademark surreal elements it has become one of his rarely seen films. The Criterion Collection DVD, though, does justice to this great film and now, hopefully, more Bunuel films will come along in the near future.