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Meet the new chambermaid, Celestine (Jeanne Moreau). Like any good servant, she is here to meet your needs--or put another way, she is here to become the target of everyone else's fixations.
Take for example the lady of the house, Madame Monteil (Franoise Lugagne). Frigid, mean-spirited, and endlessly critical of others, she cannot seem to get her mind off Celestine's Parisian background. Celestine's perceived sophistication is an affront, something inappropriate in an underling. And her husband's evident attraction to the girl is an imminent threat, as well.
Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli) has a wandering eye and a roguish appetite, but his wife is unable to satisfy his carnal desires (she insists it would be "too painful"). Rejected by his wife, M. Monteil seeks out the embrace of the servants. Celestine is the latest model in a line of maids he has impregnated, and all expectations are that she will share their fate.
To everyone's surprise, Celestine resists her employer's clumsy attempts at seduction, but that's not to say she doesn't serve an erotic function in the household. Madame Monteil's father, the patriarch of the family, asks Celestine to dress up in high heel boots, so that he can leer at her while she walks. This pastime proves too much for his aged heart, and his body is found, naked and wrapped in ecstasy around the now super-charged boots.
The death of the old man coincides with another scandalous tragedy--the rape and murder of a small child. Celestine has an idea who the culprit is: Joseph (Georges Gret), a virulent fascist and unrepentant thug who tends the Monteil's grounds. Celestine takes to his bed and agrees to marry him, in the hopes that he will let his guard down and confess to her.
Meanwhile the Monteil's neighbor, a decorated veteran of the First World War (Daniel Ivernel), nurses such a deep and abiding loathing of the Monteils that he is prepared to frame M. Monteil for the crime out of spite.
It is a study in contradictions: A respectable family that hides seething corruption. A woman who practically receives a marriage proposal a day only accepts the one from the man she fervently believes to be a rapist and child murderer. A servant underclass who are more authoritarian and exploitative than the effete rich folks they serve. An entire community clearly in need of spiritual guidance, whose priest offers only entreaties to give more money to the Church. And it all concludes with the rise of fascism, and the seeming triumph of the most devilish....or does it? We'll come back to that point in a moment.
The contradictions continue beyond the edges of the film itself: the critical consensus of Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) holds that this is an atypically straight-forward and conventional-seeming motion picture from the master of surrealist cinema, that it is not Buuelian--but Luis Buuel has a bone to pick with that. As far as Luis Buuel himself was concerned, there was no such thing as a Buuelian movie, that he had no recognizable style. He says that he set out in each film to explore the boundaries of what he could do, and treated each project individually.
Of course, it is at this point that any fan or scholar of Buuel coughs up their coffee and starts to loudly object. This is exactly what Joes de la Coline and Toms Prez Turrent did when they interviewed Buuel in the late 1970s (reprinted in the liner notes to Criterion's DVD edition of the film). They were talking about Diary of a Chambermaid, and one of its most potent and memorable images--in which snails are seen oozing across the thighs of the dead child's abandoned corpse. It was an image so vividly evocative that the censors initially removed it from the picture (current versions are restored for your viewing pleasure--enjoy!). "I can't explain that image," Buuel averred. His interviewers proceeded to gang up on him, patiently listing the numerous similar images from his other films. Confronted with proof that this was in fact a recurring motif and not a passing whim, Buuel was flummoxed. It honestly hadn't occurred to him before--which was as powerful a sign as any that even Buuel himself had never fully unpacked the associations and dream-images that populate his own work. Diary of a Chambermaid is a film that defies easy analysis--and therein lies its enduring power.
For some time, Buuel had been scheming a film adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel Journal d'une Femme de Chambre (that translates to exactly what you think it does). He figured he would shoot in Mexico, with Silvia Pinal in the lead role of Celestine.
It would not have been the first screen version of the tale--Jean Renoir mounted an adaptation in Hollywood in 1946, which Buuel studiously avoided seeing, so as not to be influenced. Nor would it be the last--notorious cult movie maker Jesus Franco helmed a 1974 sex comedy called Clestine... bonne tout faire (Celestine, Maid at Your Service). For that matter, he wasn't the only person who had it in mind to make it as a Luis Buuel film! French producer Serge Silberman thought Mirbeau's novel was a perfect choice for the next Buuel project and had been badgering Buuel to direct it. Buuel finally agreed to discard his Mexico-based version and signed up with Silberman to film in France instead, although this obliged a change of lead actress as well. Out went Silvia Pinal, in came the incomparable Jeanne Moreau.
Silberman also had a screenwriter in mind, whom he unexpectedly dropped into Buuel's lap. The fellow was a relatively inexperienced newcomer, but that "relatively inexperienced" label covered an impressive accomplishment: he and French comedian Pierre Etaix had just taken home an Academy Award for best short subject for Happy Anniversary (1962). This young fellow, Jean-Claude Carrire, was steeped in the same traditions of absurd comedy and visionary cinema that had influenced Buuel. Carrire was a committed fan of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Fritz Lang. He was born to be Buuel's writer. The two were destined to work together.
It was the start of a nearly 20 year-long collaboration, which resulted in nine screenplays, six of which Buuel actually completed as movies. They also co-wrote a book, My Last Sigh. The scope and depth of their collaboration was such that if anyone wanted to make the case that there is such a thing as a Buuelian style, maybe what they really mean is Buuel-Carrierian. For his part, Carrire agrees that Buuel was a walking bundle of contradictions and unconscious obsessions.
As far as the writing went, Buuel and Carrire had no interest in paying strict fealty to the book. The novel is "only a point of departure," he said. The novel follows Celestine as she works at a number of households; the movie plucks Buuel and Carrire's favorite incidents and concentrates them in a single house. Where the book took place in turn-of-the-century "Belle Epoque" France, they restaged the action to 1930.
With a puckish grin, Buuel quipped that setting the action in 1930 spared him the expense and bother of recreating Belle Epoque France. As with his earlier claim to not have a recognizable style, or his assertion that the shot of snails on the girl's thighs was a singular idea, this is one of those claims that requires some skeptical attention. 1930 is no innocent reference in Buuel's life: this was the year of his incendiary second film, L'Age d'Or. The premiere of L'Age d'Or in Paris provoked a vicious reaction by right extremist groups whose riots destroyed the theater. In order to "secure the peace," the equally far-right Chief of Police Jean Chiappe exploited the political advantage afforded by the chaos and banned the film. And not only does Buuel restage the action of Chambermaid to 1930, he concludes it with a fascist rally at which the young haters of France take to the streets chanting the name "Chiappe!"
What does this mean? Diary of a Chambermaid climaxes with these events: 1) the little girl's killer goes free, 2) Celestine turns into the very kind of haughty self-absorbed bourgeois lady of the house who tormented her previously, and 3) we see the rise of French reactionary politics that we know led into the trauma of the Nazi and Vichy eras. It's pretty grim stuff. Or, it could be if you take it at face value--and it was the inability to "read" a film as anything other than surface images that contributed to the riots in 1930. If there's anything that ties Buuel's films together, it is their commitment to intellectual anarchy, their refusal to be tied down by anything so reductive as a simple interpretation.
In his book Luis Buuel: A Critical Biography, Francisco Aranda watches this same sequence of events in Diary of a Chambermaid and experiences it as Buuel's revenge on Chiappe. The pro-Chiappe-ists are sped up like slapstick clowns, edited by jump cuts into absurdly inhuman cartoons and then abruptly whisked off-stage by the editor's scissors, as the film then summons an avenging bolt of lightning. You may read the final scenes this way, or come up with your own unique take--the film is flexible enough to accommodate infinite interpretations. There is no denying Buuel had the last laugh. Diary of a Chambermaid and his other extraordinary creations live on, beloved classics bequeathed to posterity, while all but the most specialist historians react to the "Chiappe" reference with a puzzled "Whozzat?"
Producer: Michel Safra, Serge Silberman
Director: Luis Bunuel
Screenplay: Luis Bunuel, Jean-Claude Carriere (adaptation and dialogue); Octave Mirbeau (novel)
Cinematography: Roger Fellous
Film Editing: Luis Bunuel, Louisette Hautecoeur
Cast: Jeanne Moreau (Celestine), Georges Geret (Joseph), Michel Piccoli (M Monteil), Francoise Lugagne (Mme Monteil), Jean Ozenne (M Rabour), Daniel Ivernel (M Mauger), Gilberte Geniat (Rose), Bernard Musson (Le sacristain), Jean-Claude Carriere (Le cure), Dominique Sauvage (Claire).
by David Kalat
Francisco Aranda, Luis Buuel: A Critical Biography.
Raymond Durgnat, Luis Buuel.
Peter William Evans and Isabel Santaolla, editors, Luis Buuel: New Readings.
Joes de la Coline and Toms Prez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buuel.
Jean-Claude Carrire, interview, Diary of a Chambermaid Criterion Collection DVD.