Often regarded as one of his least surreal films, Luis Buñuel’s The Diary Of A Chambermaid (Le Journal D’Une Femme De Chambre) (France, 1965) is based on Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel of the same name. Inevitably it’s compared to Jean Renoir’s English-language treatment in 1946; Mr. Renoir had the services of Paulette Goddard as Celestine, the chambermaid, and an adapted screenplay by the omni-talented young Burgess Meredith which shifted much of Mirbeau’s narrative decidedly in the direction of drawing-room comedy before Mirbeau’s darker elements belatedly hold sway. But Buñuel’s own treatment uses the “Diary” as a commentary on the moral relativism and survivalist opportunism that life in the 20th century has inevitably engendered. Buñuel’s surrealism here isn’t overtly visual or structural – it’s a very handsomely-shot film (even more impressive considering it was his first film in the 2.35:1 wide-screen format) with a naturalistic look and narrative. But the same foundational skepticism that informed Dada and Surreal art post-World War I – the institutionalization of savagery and inequality for ostensible political purposes, and the complicity of the citizenry ultimately subjected to it – runs underneath Buñuel’s vision of Mirbeau’s milieu. Like Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), the “documentary” presentation of the miserable living conditions of Spain’s Hurdano valley, Buñuel shows us some pretty insufferable aspects of provincial privilege, the ‘eccentricities’ of the landed gentry, and their willful dismissal of incipient sociopathy, and seems to be asking us how we could even consider, then or now, tolerating it.
Jeanne Moreau is Buñuel’s Celestine here, and, not too far unlike Goddard’s portrayal, she balances a canny mix of deference to her employers, condescension for their provincialism and an opportunistic eye towards her own interests. The lady of the house, Mme. Monteil (Françoise Lugagne) is pinched and humorless, and gives Celestine a short tour of which objects to fuss over and which not to break or ruin. We soon learn that Mme. Monteil has a mysterious ailment that prevents her from having consistent intimate relations with Monsieur Monteil – her bathroom, which Celestine never enters, is a tiny laboratory of elixirs, powders and injection and/or purgation devices. This, of course, leaves Mr. Monteil (the always reliable Michel Piccoli) with a permanently deranging case of blue-balls that he has notoriously self-treated with Celestine’s predecessors. Piccoli portrays Monteil as an overwound (yet oddly hilarious) nervous wreck, terrible at hunting on his own estate and indignantly furious at his derisive retired-military-Captain neighbor (Daniel Ivernel) – his clumsy flirtations with Celestine are almost comically hard to watch. The Monteils, nonetheless, are devoted to Monsieur Rebour, Madame’s father (Jean Ozenne), from whence their manner-to-which-they-are-accustomed has originated. He’s actually a pleasantly elegant older gentleman that Celestine likes; Buñuel’s reading of Mirbeau’s book was most certainly enlivened for him when he discovered Monsieur Rebour’s ardent shoe fetish (“That was a wonderful afternoon little Luis spent on the floor of his mother’s closet, and he has never allowed us to forget it,” noted Pauline Kael), and Celestine is coyly but amiably inclined to indulge it while reading J.K. Huysmans aloud to him (“It takes a good dose of goodwill to suppose that the ruling classes are respectable, and the lower classes worthy of relief or commiseration…”).
Mirbeau’s, Renoir’s and Buñuel’s darkest character is the caretaker Joseph (Georges Géret), a devoted (and trusted) longtime servant for the Monteils who is also a virulently xenophobic nationalist. He plots with the village’s sexton to foment another French revolution, expelling the “wops, kikes” and unionists. Joseph hates priests, but likes religion – as the sexton says, “The clergy will help get rid of the Jews.” (Buñuel and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière transplanted the late-19th century story to the 1930s, and knowing what we know now about Europe in the ’30s, this is especially chilling.) The Monteils, of course, are oblivious to this, even as the Madame chides Celestine for wearing perfume while working.
Celestine dutifully works through the insults, the flirtations and even Joseph’s fascism, but when Monsieur Rebour unexpectedly passes away in his bed, clutching the boots that Celestine wears for him, she decides there’s no reason to stay on any longer, and proffers her resignation. But, at the train station before departure, she learns that Claire, a young neighboring farmgirl whom Celestine is fond of, has been accosted and murdered. Celestine suddenly returns to the estate and resumes her work.
Our initial inclination is to assume she wants to take revenge on Joseph, whom, she believes, is the obvious suspect, but she obviously finds him primitively attractive as well – he’s more reluctant to sleep with her than she with him. She ingratiates herself with him, starts doing chores for him, and fosters familiarity, even with Joseph knowing that she has “bad ideas” about him. But the Captain, next door, starts going sour on his longtime servant and lover, Rose (Gilberte Géniat), and Celestine is receptive to his fresh advances as well. As her relationship deepens with Joseph, she agrees to marry him and move with him to Cherbourg, where he’ll open an inn for other like-minded political activists; “Plus, it’s a military town… You’ll have every garrison at your feet.”
Renoir’s version clearly vilifies Joseph, sends him to doom, and Celestine ends up with the Captain, who is a friendly, flower-eating eccentric – still, though, an admirable match for her, all considered. But Buñuel’s Celestine carries a pronounced streak of amoral opportunism – she’s clearly working every available option, and her own self-interest is just as important as any moral mission she may presume. By the time she sees to it that Joseph is arrested for the murder, the case she’s made is too weak, and he’s quickly released. The Captain here, in Buñuel’s version, is friendly enough, but can also be a bully and a liar; Celestine has already married him when she learns of Joseph’s release. The Captain admits he has always admired Joseph, and is becoming friends with Monteil. Our last glimpse of Celestine is the look on her face when it dawns on her that she’s just married into everything she should be hating.
The film concludes with Joseph standing in the doorway of his Cherbourg tavern, another woman already on his arm, cheering on the nationalist political parade passing by. And, in a darkly brilliant coup-du-théatre, he leads the marchers in a cry of “Vive Chiappe! Vive Chiappe!” Chiappe was the Parisian prefect-of-police who saw to it that Buñuel’s 1930 L’Age D’Or was banned in France.
The Diary Of A Chambermaid was Buñuel’s first collaboration with the French producer Serge Silberman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and, save for the Silvia Pinal – Gustavo Alatriste Simon Of The Desert the very next year, most of Buñuel’s work hereafter included one or both of them. It started out a little rocky – Buñuel wanted to shoot in Mexico with Silvia Pinal as Celestine, but Silberman wanted a French film, and arranged for Louis Malle to introduce Buñuel to Jeanne Moreau. She is, of course, perfect.