Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

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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.

4/5 Stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Doreleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical.

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor, who is searching for his ideal lover.

Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they two get their little prodigies ready for the big show.  Delphine is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love while Solange on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American friend.

The dramatic irony sets in, and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist, who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance and in need of some performers, the Carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The next morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris, and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans, and then Yvonne is reunited with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry. She would be united with her love soon enough.

The singing is an integral part of this film, and sometimes there seems to be so much that it gets tiresome. However, the light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like. Demy pays homage to the Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly in his film. The film takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and most of the talking comes out in song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film, and most of the characters are pleasant in this comedic musical of renewed and new found love.

4.5/5 Stars

Contempt (1963)

Directed by Jean Luc Godard and starring an international cast including Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang, this film within a film is Godard’s personal examination of the cinematic world. It opens with the shooting of a scene only to have the camera turn to face on the audience. Then begins a story where a screenwriter married to a beautiful woman is called upon to write a new screenplay for an adaption of the Odyssey. The producer is a vain and loud mouthed American who quickly has his eyes on the producer’s wife. Other members in this production are the real life legendary director Fritz Lang as well as the producer’s personal female assistant. Things begin to turn for the writer after he leaves his wife with the American playboy. She begins to become distant and she finally acknowledges that she no longer loves him. One of the famous extended sequences focuses on the argument they have inside their residence. In the course of the scene their relationship begins to crumble and finally goes beyond repair. This turn of events is very obviously paralleled in the Odyssey by Odysseus and Penelope. In the end the wife leaves with the producer and screenwriter is left in Italy to help finish up the film alone. Little does he know what has happened. Fellini’s 8 ½ may be a greater film about a filmmaker and his art, but I think “Contempt” is important because Godard focuses a great deal on the conflict between the commercial films of Hollywood and the art films of Europe. His film is more about each individual person who together make a film production possible, and he brings it to the screen with one of his best casts.

4.5/5 Stars