Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre) [DVD]
Screenplay : Luis Buñuel & Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1964
Stars : Jeanne Moreau (Celestine), Georges Géret (Joseph), Daniel Ivernel (Captain Mauger), Françoise Lugagne (Madame Monteil), Muni (Marianne), Jean Ozenne (Monsieur Rabour), Michel Piccoli (Monsieur Monteil)
Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre) is not one of his better-known or his best films. But, it is a fascinatingly bizarre minor work, a seemingly straightforward country melodrama that becomes gradually weirder as the story progresses even though the surface of the narrative never quite ruptures in absolute absurdity, as in other Buñuel films. Instead, it stays disarmingly placid, with sickness and twisted ambiguity swirling just underneath.
Loosely adapted from the turn-of-the-century novel by Octave Mirbeau by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, with whom Buñuel would work five more times, the story takes place in France in the late 1920s. It concerns Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), a smart Parisian who moves out to the countryside to work as a chambermaid in the manor of a wealthy family that is eccentric, to say the least.
The first person Celestine meets is Joseph (Georges Géret), the rather grouchy gardener who has worked for the family for 15 years. We later learn that he is a bigot and a rising fascist who is organizing a right-wing group to spread fascist ideology throughout France. Celestine then meets the lady of the house, Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), a (literally) frigid woman who is materially obsessed with all the objects in the house. Her husband, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), a sexually frustrated dolt, spends most of his time out hunting. Celestine was hired, however, primarily to work for Madame Monteil's aging father, Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne), who seems harmless enough despite his insistent shoe fetish.
For the first hour or so, Buñuel appears to be content to let the story play out as a lightly comical farce about the bourgeoisie's odd combination of shallowness and eccentricity, a theme that obsessed much of his later work. Money makes one weird, he seems to be saying, and Celestine acts largely as a viewer surrogate, thrust into these bizarre surroundings and forced to "settle in" as best she can, which involves her constantly having to deal with sexual advances from all the men, especially Monteil. She gamely puts up with Monsieur Rabour's requests that she wear a special pair of boots while in his office, and she allows him to touch her calf while she reads to him, but her bored glances and yawning lets us know how uninvolved she really is.
The story takes a nasty turn midway, however, when a young girl is brutally raped and murdered in the forest near the Monteils' estate. Celestine becomes determined to pin the crime on Joseph, who she thinks is a sick, cruel man. In typical Buñuel fashion, however, Celestine does not go about this as one might expect, as she engages him in an ambiguous romantic dance. She plays up to Joseph's desires, agreeing to marry him if only he will confess to the crime that she is sure he committed. This leads to the film's most blackly comedic line, with Celestine and Joseph climbing into a bed together to make love, and as the camera discreetly pulls away, we hear her say, "And now, my dear Joseph, tell me you killed little Claire," as if it is dirty-talk foreplay.
Diary of a Chambermaid is a strange work, to be sure, although it is not entirely satisfying. It feels as though Buñuel is playing the line between his surrealist tendencies and straightforward melodrama too much, giving us a bit of both, but not enough of either. This was one of his more expensive films, shot in anamorphic Franscope widescreen, with beautiful mis en scene and gorgeous black-and-white photography, and the added expense seems to have blurred his sensibilities.
There are flashes of dark, malevolent brilliance, such as the disturbing scene in which Celestine witnesses Joseph slaughtering a goose in particularly cruel fashion, forcing it to suffer because, as he says, "They're better when they suffer, and I like it that way," which establishes his violent and sadistic personality and makes the later seduction scenes between him and Celestine that much more unnerving. The shot that moves through the black trees and discovers the dead little girl is also masterfully evocative and disturbing, as it discretely shows only her bloody legs covered with large snails she had been collecting--it's a grisly, but strangely beautiful shot.
As in most of his film, Buñuel's political ideology is clearly demarcated, this time in the subplot involving Joseph's fascist organization. The backdrop of French fascism gives the entire film an uneasy quality that sometimes makes it hard to laugh even when it's funny--which was probably Buñuel's intention. Having suffered through extreme right-wing persecution during his formative years as an artist, his political sensibilities stayed strong until the end of his life.
The ending of the film is vague in the exact details, but it clearly shows us that all does not turn out well. Buñuel's cynicism about life and misanthropy toward his characters is on full display here, as the young girl's rape and murder goes unpunished, Joseph fulfills his dream of running a restaurant in a nearby town, the fascists march proudly through the city streets, and Celestine marries the Monteils' neighbor, a retired military man, and becomes yet another member of the bourgeoisie. It is this last bit that is the real kicker because we realize that, despite Celestine's seeming passivity for most of the film, having a chambermaid of her own is what she really wanted all along.
|Diary of a Chambermaid: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Video interview with Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière |
Transcript of late-1970s interview with director Luis Buñuel
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Diary of a Chambermaid was the only one of Buñuel's films that he made with an anamorphic widescreen process, in this case Franscope, one of the many international versions of Cinemascope. This Criterion DVD does a wonderful job of presenting the restored film in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which puts Bu–uel's careful framing and mis en scene in its proper dimensions. Transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive newly struck from the original negative, the image is largely artifact-free, with good contrast and excellent detail. There are a few scenes that appear a little too gray, which reduces contrast and makes some of the blacks appear a bit grainy, but this is most likely due to the limitations of the source material.|
|The soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, is particularly crucial to this film as Buñuel used absolutely no extradiegetic music, relying entirely on naturalistic sound effects to enhance the visuals. His no-music experiment is largely successful as we don't even miss it, and the soundtrack on this DVD is excellent in reproducing the subtle sound effects without any distortion or distracting hiss.|
| The disc features a 19-minute interview with Jean-Claude Carrière, who coscripted Diary of a Chambermaid (in addition to all of Buñuel's later French films, including Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). The interview, which is conveniently divided into eight topical chapters, was filmed in the fall of 2000. Carrière, who speaks excellent English, talks primarily about his experiences working with Buñuel, including his brief role playing the unhelpful priest in Chambermaid. He also talks about the novel from the which the movie was taken, and he briefly discusses Buñuel's relationship with Jeanne Moreau and Muni. |
The disc also contains an original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen. The trailer is a bit odd, in that is consists of scenes from the film overlaid by an audio track of a conventional interview with Jeanne Moreau.
Also, the liner notes include, in addition to an essay by Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson, a lengthy transcript of a fascinating interview conducted in the late 1970s with Buñuel by Mexican critic and writer José De La Colina.
©2001 James Kendrick