The Diary of a Chambermaid
Cast & Crew
In 1885, Celestine, a chambermaid, is so tired of her station in life that when she arrives at her new post, the rural French home of the Lanlaires, she vows to use the next available man to achieve wealth. The following morning, Joseph, the sadistic valet, shows Celestine the vault in which the family keeps their silver, which is used only on independence day, 14 July, when they drink to the death of the Republic. Later, Celestine flirts with Monsieur Lanlaire, who is dominated by his disagreeable wife. When Lanlaire offers Celestine money to buy a present, she asks instead for a piece of the silver. Their conversation is interrupted by the Lanlaires' next-door neighbor, Captain Mauger, who throws a rock through Lanlaire's greenhouse. Mauger, a hyperactive man who eats flowers and lives alone with his servant Rose, now presses Celestine to come and live with him. As an inducement, he offers to marry her and make her a present of the 25,000 francs he has hidden in the house. When the Lanlaires' tubercular son Georges comes home, Madame Lanlaire buys the attractive Celestine new dresses and instructs her to care for Georges, in hopes that her charms will keep him at home. Despite Celestine's allure, Georges announces his intention to leave for Paris. That night, Madame Lanlaire sends Celestine, dressed in her nightclothes, to Georges's room with some broth. At first, Georges is happy to see her, but later accuses Celestine of conspiring with his mother. Celestine realizes that Madame Lanlaire was using her for her own purposes and angrily quits her job. When she asks Joseph for a ride to the station, however, he begs her to stay and explains that he has saved almost enough money to buy a café in Cherbourg. Joseph intends to steal the Lanlaires' silver on independence day and offers to marry Celestine and set her up in the café with the profits. Reluctantly, Celestine agrees to stay until after the independence day celebration. Joseph's plans are thwarted, however, by Madame Lanlaire, who has overheard his conversation with Celestine. A desperate Joseph now plans to steal Mauger's fortune. While Mauger and Celestine are at the celebration in the village, Joseph searches the house, but Mauger returns unexpectedly and Joseph kills him. Celestine sees Joseph come out of Mauger's garden with a shovel and realizes what has occurred. Nonetheless, when Joseph announces that he intends to marry Celestine and leave, she does not denounce him. Georges is extremely upset by the announcement, and Madame Lanlaire begs Joseph to take Celestine away from her son, which he agrees to do in exchange for the silver. Joseph and Celestine leave the Lanlaires with a cart full of silver, but are stopped by the crowds celebrating in the village. Hoping to delay their departure, Celestine hands out the silver to the villagers. Georges arrives while she is doing this, and he and Joseph struggle. The townspeople join in the fight and Joseph is killed. Later, Celestine and Georges board the train together.
Arthur M. Landau
Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) - The Diary of a Chambermaid
Goddard plays Celestine, a comely, flirtatious young maidservant who, as the movie opens, is arriving at a new post, the estate of the august Lanlaire family. As she notes in the diary she keeps neatly in pencil, it will be her twelfth job in two years, and even she realizes her track record could raise a few eyebrows: "What is wrong with me? I can certainly boast of having seen many houses and strange faces," and, she adds, of "filthy souls." The suggestion is that Celestine has become morally disillusioned, and perhaps she's had her heart broken, too. Still, she's no naïf: When her new employer's valet, the icy-cool and mordantly creepy Joseph (Francis Lederer), picks her up at the train station and asks for her references, she needs to lift both skirt and petticoat to get to them, showing off a healthy stretch of ankle in the process.
And after arriving at her new post, she announces to her new friend the scullery maid (played by a mouse-like Irene Ryan, who would go on to play Granny on TV's Beverly Hillbillies) that she has a plan for turning her life around. "I'm going to fight and I'm going to fight hard," she decrees. "And I don't care who gets hurt as long as it's not me!" She also vows to ensnare the very first man she meets who has the money to keep her.
For a moment, she thinks that might be the bearded, buffoonish master of the house (Reginald Owen), but it turns out he's ruled by his iron-willed wife (Judith Anderson): She's an old-school aristocrat who'd prefer to keep her distance from the lower orders, although the changing face of France is making that impossible. Celestine then sets her sights on the Lanlaires' next-door neighbor, Captain Mauger (Burgess Meredith), an unrepentant republican, hedonist and nutball who also happens to have a lot of money. But Madame Lanlaire has other plans for Celestine, hoping to use her as a seduction tool to keep her sickly and unhappy son, Georges (Hurd Hatfield), close to home. Celestine may be falling in love with Georges -- genuinely -- but the valet Joseph has other plans for her, and by the time this not-quite-a-love-triangle explodes, the picture has shifted its shape and tone several times: At one moment or another, it may be a comedy, a social satire, or a darkly glittering near-noir.
The Diary of a Chambermaid is never named in the list of Renoir's greatest movies, pictures like The Rules of the Game (1939) or Grand Illusion (1937) or The Golden Coach (1952, the last of which Renoir made after his return to France in 1951). But The Diary of a Chambermaid is still of a piece with those films, certainly in the way Renoir keeps the mood light and lilting even when the themes turn somewhat dark, and in his insistence on feeling something for -- and making us feel something for -- characters who don't always behave admirably. Furthermore, Renoir's kindness and warmth toward his actors is evident here, as it is in all his films. It comes through in a letter he wrote to Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard in 1945, shortly before the film was released. (Burgess and Goddard were married at the time the picture was made; Meredith had also written the screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by Octave Mirbeau.) "Paulette, each time I see this picture I become a little prouder of my collaboration with you," Renoir writes. "You are just wonderful, how wonderful I cannot even tell you. I have ruthlessly cut anything slowing down the action, and now Celestine walks through the film with the impetuosity of a force of nature."
In a letter written a few weeks later, just after the film's first preview, Renoir praises Meredith's performance as well, but gives particular weight to his screenplay: "Dear Burgess, our story is powerful and I think you will find the just reward of your stubbornness when you decided to rescue our enterprise from the RKO shipwreck." (RKO had originally intended to release the picture, but Renoir, Meredith and Goddard ended up forming their own company, Camden Productions, to produce it.)
That same letter also betrays hints of Renoir's own perfectionist streak: He refers yet again to meticulous cuts he made in The Diary of a Chambermaid in order to make it move more swiftly or gently skew the audience's attitude toward a character. And even more significantly, he suggests that he fears he didn't do right by Goddard, despite the fact that he's very pleased with her performance: "Maybe these doubts come from the fact I discovered, only when finding myself in the midst of an audience, that this picture was not a 'star' picture, but actually an 'ensemble' picture, with Paulette playing the most important part. And I must admit that my ambition was to make a 'star' picture with her."
The Diary of a Chambermaid isn't, as Renoir astutely surmised, a "star" picture. Goddard anchors it, but she doesn't drive it -- instead, the action swirls around her in unpredictable whorls, half-merry and half-mad. (Eighteen years later, in his version of Diary, starring Jeanne Moreau, Luis Buñuel would interpret the same material quite differently, making it more surreal and more salacious.) The Diary of a Chambermaid is hardly the greatest of Renoir's movies, yet it contains hearty doses of what made him great, including a bottomless love of life, and of human beings and all their attendant follies. As the critic John Simon noted in a 1980 New York Times piece, pondering the reasons why nearly all 20th century film critics loved Renoir, "film critics, like filmgoers, are looking for alternative worlds in which to set up imaginary abodes." Simon goes on to assess how inhospitable, if fascinating, some of those worlds are: "American cinema offers mostly a nowhere world with scarcely enough oxygen for dreams to subsist on. The universe of Bergman and Bresson, Kurosawa and Buñuel, is lonely if not frightening. Fellini's comedy may be laughing at you. But chez Renoir everyone feels at home." The Diary of a Chambermaid, made when Renoir was just finding his way in his second home, the United States, isn't always easy to parse, yet its challenges are the inclusive kind. It's an odd little picture, but one that comes with its own cheerfully askew welcome mat.
Producer: Benedict Bogeaus, Burgess Meredith; Paulette Goddard (uncredited)
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Burgess Meredith (screenplay); Octave Mirbeau (novel); Andre Heuse, Andre de Lorde, Thielly Nores (play)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Music: Michel Michelet
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Celestine), Burgess Meredith (Captain Mauger), Hurd Hatfield (Georges Lanlaire), Francis Lederer (Joseph), Judith Anderson (Madame Lanlaire), Florence Bates (Rose), Irene Ryan (Louise), Reginald Owen (Captain Lanlaire), Almira Sessions (Marianne).
by Stephanie Zacharek, the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
The New York Times
David Thompson and Lorraine LoBianco, editors, Jean Renoir: Letters; Faber and Faber, 1995
Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) - The Diary of a Chambermaid
According to July 22, 1945 New York Times article, RKO originally intended to film The Diary of a Chambermaid, with Burgess Meredith, Jean Renoir and Paulette Goddard acting as producers, but agreement could not be reached on the treatment of the story. A March 1945 Los Angeles Examiner item stated that Dudley Nichols was working on the script at that time. Renoir, Meredith and Goddard then formed Camden Productions, Inc. to produce the film. Goddard and Meredith were married at the time of the film's production. Benedict Bogeaus, owner of General Service Studios, became the principal shareholder when he supplied $900,000 to the company. The New York Times article also notes that the film's settings and costumes were copied from the paintings of Pierre Renoir, the father of director Jean Renoir. For this reason, the time period was set at 1885. According to modern sources, Renoir considered hiring Anita Loos to write the script. Although initial critical response was lukewarm, the film went on to make a profit and was named by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best of the year. Octave Mirbeau's novel also served as the source for Louis Buñuel's 1974 film Le journal d'une femme de Chambre.