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Savant Review:

Diary of a Chambermaid

Diary of a Chambermaid
The Criterion Collection
1964 / b&w / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 98(101)m.
Starring Jeanne Moreau, Georges Géret, Daniel Ivernel, Francoise Lugagne, Muni, Jean Ozenne, Michel Piccoli
Cinematography Roger Fellous
Production Designer Georges Wakhévitch
Film Editors Luis Buñuel & Louisette Hautecoeur
Writing credits Luis Buñuel & Jean-Claude Carrière from the novel by Octave Mirbeau
Produced by Michel Safra & Serge Silberman
Directed by Luis Buñuel

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 Pity.

Herself a mildly-wicked Pollyanna, Célestine tries to stay neutral to the sexual overtures and overt 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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview with the Screenwriter, trailer.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 9, 2001

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