A tale of decadence, perversion, and murder, and one woman's efforts to use them to her own ends.
Luis Buñuel is best known as a surrealist auteur. His famous collaboration with Salvador Dalí yielded the surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. In these films Buñuel uses bizarre imagery to sharp, satiric ends, criticizing both the conventional and the avant-garde.
Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid is the second time that Octave Mirbeau's novel Le Journal d'une femme de chambre has been adapted for the screen. The first was in 1946, in a film by Jean Renoir starring Paulette Goddard. In this film Buñuel draws us into a world of shocking amorality and uses it to express his contempt for Fascism and the hypocrisy he sees in bourgeois society in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
Facts of the Case
Celestine (Jeanne Moreau—La Femme Nikita, Mademoiselle) makes her living as a chambermaid. As the film opens, we see her traveling to take a new position in the country, far from the sophisticated Paris life to which she is accustomed. As she settles in to her new position she quickly becomes aware of the numerous quirks and perversions of those around her. There is the man of the house, Monsieur Monteil (Michael Piccoli—Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) who is ruled by his libido above all else. His wife, Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), is far more concerned with property and possessions than she is with people, including her philandering husband. Madame's father, Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) is a seemingly kind and harmless old fellow, obsessed with cleanliness and women's footwear.
Foremost among the servants is Joseph, the gardener and driver. He is a rabid nationalist who interprets everything from the daily news to personal slights as a matter of patriotism. He is a supporter of the growing Fascist movement in France, and misses no opportunity to voice his hatred of Jews and immigrants, and his absolute faith in his country and the army.
Also part of the mix is Captain Mauger (Daniel Ivernel), a highly decorated and highly eccentric war veteran who lives in the estate next door to the Monteil household. He is notable for his total disdain for the Monteils, and his habit of continually throwing garbage and debris over the wall into their yard.
All of these characters reveal themselves to Celestine (and to the audience) slowly, in a series of scenes that give the narrative a leisurely, episodic feel. Celestine, far from being a heroic, noble protagonist, plays her employers and fellow servants, indulging their fetishes and quirks just enough to lead them on and make them pliable for her own ends. In a world of moral ambiguity, she is perhaps the most ambiguous character. As our viewpoint character she is the most stable and sympathetic person in the film, and yet she is almost completely mercenary, serving no code but her own desires and whims. She is willing to place herself in all manner of unsavory situations to get what she wants.
Two parallel deaths jolt the characters out of their routine. One is the elderly Monsieur Rabour, and the other is a poor girl who is frequently in the company of the house servants. Celestine is moved by the girl's death, and decides to do what she can to bring the killer to justice, even if she has to lie and fabricate evidence to do so.
In this film Buñuel abandons his customary surrealism for a subdued, unornamented style. Most scenes are shot as one continuous take, with cuts taking place only where changes in location necessitate them. Within these scenes, Buñuel's camera is almost constantly in motion. The movements are usually subtle and always graceful, and they give the feeling that the viewer is taking the place of a silent, unseen character in each scene. Indeed, the camera moves far more in most scenes than the characters do, which draws us as viewers into the world of the film. However, Buñuel never allows us to become fully comfortable in this world, and uses subtle camera techniques to illustrate this. Almost nothing in the film is shot directly at eye level, or square to the camera in terms of perspective. The result is an environment that draws us in and envelops us, but keeps us slightly off-balance at all times. It is also worth noting that in addition to the minimalist cutting and realistic filmmaking style, this film contains no musical score whatsoever; this adds to the overall sense of hyperrealism.
Diary of a Chambermaid moves along two completely different tracks at the same time. On the surface level, the plot as described above is interesting and well crafted, with each scene playing like a new episode or vignette that builds on the last. It seems to move slowly, until we as viewers realize with a start how much about these characters has been revealed, and how engrossed we are in their doings. Taken solely on this level, the film is a well-crafted entertainment that would have mass appeal even today.
On a completely different yet parallel track, Buñuel uses these characters as explicit criticisms of his old favorite targets: the Catholic Church, Fascism, and bourgeois culture. He focuses on the quirks and perversions of the wealthy members of the household, demonstrating the corruption that underlies their veneer of respectability. Buñuel shows a certain relish in exposing them as the shallow poseurs he believes them to be. The servant classes aren't totally immune to his fire either; some of the strongest implied criticisms in the film are directed at Joseph the gardener and his fellow working-class Fascist sympathizers. Joseph in particular is also tormented by internal demons that make the perversions of his employers seem like harmless eccentricities by comparison. Finally, there is the figure of the priest, played by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. The priest in question seems interested only in manipulating Madame Monteil into making sizeable donations to his parish. He also pretends to counsel her as she describes intimacy problems in her marriage; one gets the sense that he enjoys these personal details a bit more than is appropriate for someone in his position.
Jeanne Moreau is perfectly cast in the role of Celestine. She is undeniably a beautiful woman, and at the same time very real. Her beauty is not the glamorous, Hollywood, airbrushed, unnatural variety. She carries with her a sense of world-weariness; one feels that there is nothing that could shock or surprise her.
The video transfer on this Criterion Collection disc is, as expected, outstanding. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The black and white image is so crisp and clear that it could have been shot yesterday. It appears that the people at Criterion put a lot of work into this presentation. There are a few blemishes, notably the ubiquitous "cigarette burns" indicating reel changes, and some occasional nicks and scratches. For the most part, however, the picture quality is excellent and has that special clarity that can only come from black and white cinematography.
The sound on this disc is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0, preserving the original mono format. It is presented in the original French, of course; no blasphemous English dubbing from our friends at Criterion. It is sharp and clear, with no instance of hiss or distortion. It sounds far better than one would expect for a 37-year-old mono soundtrack, and the dialogue is clear and pleasant-sounding. I imagine that it would also be easily understood by those who actually speak French.
The extra content on the disc is not terribly extensive, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality. Criterion has provided us with the theatrical trailer and a video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. The trailer runs for three and a half minutes and is a fairly unremarkable collection of scenes from the film. What makes it noteworthy is the audio portion, which is essentially a mini-interview with Jeanne Moreau about her impressions and opinions of the film. This is a particularly interesting treat, and gives a lot if insight into her interpretation of the character and her performance. She also explains, in appropriately cryptic fashion, that the film is part comedy, part drama, part mystery, and part romance.
The other feature on the disc, the interview with Carrière, runs for about 19 minutes and was shot in the fall of 2000 exclusively for this disc. This was the first collaboration between Buñuel and Carrière; their partnership was to last through most of Buñuel's later films. This portion of the DVD also includes some brief text screens of biographical information about Buñuel.
There are also two supplements included as printed material in the case insert. The first is an essay on Buñuel by Michael Atkinson, a film critic for The Village Voice. While the essay contains a few interesting observations on Buñuel, it is marred by its excessively elitist, film-snob tone. Atkinson is far more interested in flowery language and making himself look smart than he is in giving us any useful information. The other printed feature is far more interesting; it is a transcript of an interview that Buñuel gave regarding Diary of a Chambermaid. It starts as a mostly factual account of the process of making this film, but soon detours into a stream-of-consciousness discussion of Buñuel's use of symbolism and the subconscious meanings of his chosen symbols. The interview is probably most valuable as an insight into the director's personality, rather than any deep knowledge of the film. In it we see Buñuel as a jocular, engaging personality, devoid of the self-importance or pretension that is so common to artists of his stature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The prosecution has no case; there are no negative aspects of this film to criticize.
In my attempt to describe this film, one element has been forgotten. I have failed to convey just how wickedly funny Buñuel's satire is in places. Whether it is Monsieur Monteil's desperate pursuit of Celestine's charms or the old gentleman's foot fetish, Buñuel brings out the absurdity and the resultant humor of these characters' lives.
Unlike so many films of this kind, Diary of a Chambermaid manages to convey its points without letting them overshadow good film technique, good writing, and good storytelling. I recommend it highly, especially to anyone with a just slightly subversive or offbeat sensibility.
The film and the DVD are acquitted on all counts.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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