Luis Bunuel made a name for himself ever since his early work on Un Chien Andalou (1929) as king of the surrealist filmmakers. That and bashing the bourgeoisie. Some might be surprised in finding that Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from the eponymous 1900 novel of Octave Mirbeau, is a fairly straightforward narrative for him.
From what I gather, that’s not to say its fully faithful to its source but more so it does not send the narrative hurtling into surrealistic visions like many of his other prominent works. What’s not missing is his typical acerbic wit that belittles the lifestyle of the upper class partially through the eyes of a Chambermaid named Celestine (Jeanne Moreau).
Before it’s begun we already know it’s charted out a diverging course from that which Jean Renoir’s Hollywood effort tread. That goes without question because not simply the directors but the systems that they were working under prove drastically different. Thus, there’s little reason to label this a remake. It’s an entirely different beast.
Furthermore, their leading ladies, the vivacious Paulette Goddard, and the aloof Jeanne Moreau could not be more different muses. The latter dame of France projects even a mild indifference to the hoops she’s put through.
Moreau actually received the part over Silvia Pinal who was intent on being in the picture (even learning French for the role). Bunuel was no doubt happy to have Pinal aboard as well but ultimately the French backing won out.
While he did not get his initially chosen leading lady, Bunuel nevertheless was blessed with one of his other most prolific collaborators the young French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere who would go on to work with the director on many of his most prestigious later works.
Celestine, as portrayed here, is not an altogether awful human being — she does show some amount of heart even — but that does not mean she fails to realize the degree of power she has over people.
Yes, she’s only a chambermaid. There’s an elder gentleman who resides in the manor. His adult daughter who oversees much of their affairs. And we have the upstairs-downstairs drama at hand most certainly with gossip being traded. Especially about the Madame’s husband (Michel Piccoli) whose raging libido means he is just about to pronounce his love for anything that moves.
However, in this particular picture, the Monsieur Monteil also has an ongoing feud with the retired army officer next door who is constantly ridiculing him and tossing refuse onto his property. In fact, there are numerous other exemplary moments of wry humor like when a pronounced animal lover annihilates a butterfly at point-blank range his first time using a shotgun. Or the fact that the same man who turns out to be Lord of the manor finds Celestine far too long a name and christens her Marie; that’s what all his past maids went by.
But as Bunuel pictures are accustomed to doing, this one slowly begins to roll out the carpet of perversity masked under refined sophistication. The master has Celestine read to him in the evenings and quite nonchalantly asks to touch her calf. He says she has nothing to fear and otherwise he might be the most charming individual in the home. He’s simply exercising a few whims, after all, he’s advanced in years. He should be given leeway… That’s how the rationalization goes anyway. However, the moment is as cringe-worthy as it is despicable especially in an age where such acts of sexual harassment are finally being brought to the fore and into the light.
Except in a Bunuel picture these proclivities were never really hidden. He tantalizes and nearly taunts you with them. Because this elderly “gentleman” is not the only one. The perpetually vexed husband keeps inquiring if Celestine has settled in because he wants to have a love affair with her. He promises that he’s not a brute though his past history seems to suggest otherwise.
Then, there’s brusque chauffeur Joseph who initially picked her up at the station. He relishes the opportunity of making the goose for dinner suffer because they taste better that way. And he also brandishes callous statements about killing jews after scanning the newspaper headlines. His anti-semitic sentiments are never in question.
The crass behavior doesn’t end there either. The father dies and on the very same day, a darling little girl that Celestine had taken care of is prematurely pulled from the picture as well. Both have dubious shrouds lingering over them. Amid it all, Celestine nearly leaves her post but comes back and the marriage proposals keep on coming from every man. She finally ends up with probably the nicest of the lot. It turns out hurling insults and garbage is almost docile.
Even the priest while not necessarily a wayward figure provides no type of spiritual guidance. He has no wisdom to impart. Instead entreating his parishioners to give to his church. There is no one righteous, not even one.
One of the few moments Bunuel does stray from normal classical filmmaking comes in the final frames. The first time you see it the immediate assumption is your eyes must be playing a trick on you.
But then we see a mass of protesters jump once, then again, and one final time so that they have all disappeared from the screen with each subsequent cut. One final lightning bolt for good measure and the books close on Bunuel’s rueful indictment of the bourgeoisie. It was very much his favorite pastime.
And yet any neat explanation of the film — even if it is more conventional as a narrative — is soon eviscerated by any number of complications. The contradiction in character, political undertones, and even a finale that indubitably has ties to Bunuel’s early career all spring to mind. His picture L`Age d’Or (1930) was decried with a similar protest. There’s no doubt that with each subsequent picture, the director pushed the cinematic boundaries with schemes of visionary ingenuity. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the skill in his craft.