Eye For Film >> Movies >> Diary Of A Chambermaid (1964) Film Review
Diary Of A Chambermaid
Reviewed by: Chris
Buñuel once said, "Bourgeois morality is for me immoral and to be fought. The morality founded on our most unjust social institutions, like religion, patriotism, the family, culture: briefly, what are called 'the pillars of society'."
I mention this not to alienate people who might find such a statement offensive, but to try and offer some insight into Buñuel's point of view. A viewpoint vigorously defended in this anti-bourgeois, rural tale that has a kick like a mule. Buñuel's truths are just as applicable today but, by putting them in 1930s France, he sweetens the bitter pill with a coating of sex, storytelling and the reassuring fiction that 'things have perhaps moved on since then.'
Célestine impresses us. Intelligent, attractive and sophisticated - but she nevertheless needs to earn her living in service. She takes the train from Paris to work as a chambermaid at a country estate. In this lap of wealth, she deals with a panoply of dodgy people. A brutish handyman. A frigidly overbearing Madame Monteil. Madame's lecherous husband and her kinky father. Remarkably, none of these are portrayed as stereotypes. Characters are well fleshed out as Buñuel pits one against another. Madame Monteil earns our sympathy as she confides sexual shortcomings to the priest, who is in turn well-meaning if hopelessly out of touch. Doddering old Monsieur Rabour, although at first shockingly abhorrent with his fixation on women's feet, probably has nothing more harmful than a shoe fetish. "Would you mind if I touch your calf?" he asks (but goes no further up her leg). Is Célestine playing a dangerous game? Is she a libertine? Or just one step ahead of her audience?
The first half of Diary of a Chambermaid is delightful saucy comedy. Buñuel's famed surrealism, that make films like Un Chien Andalou or L'Âge d'Or so formidable, is nowhere to be seen. Nor do we have to grapple with the distanciation of Exterminating Angel, his Brechtian masterpiece of just two years earlier. But be warned, gentle reader. The second half is not only grislier, but by the end Buñuel will have pulled the rug from under your feet. It can be a bleak experience.
Quite apart from a clever story (intelligently adapted from Mirbeau and previously filmed by Renoir), Diary Of A Chambermaid offers many delights, both to casual viewers and serious film analysts. Depending on your viewpoint, Moreau's many-sided performance is either a triumph for feminism or stands feminism on its head. It strips bare the bourgeoisie and capitalist, presenting the rising tide of French fascism as xenophobic intolerance - one we can recognise as replicated in many countries or patriotic cults even today. The hypocrisy of the upper classes is one of 'fur coat and no knickers'; whereas the pious protestations of the lower ranks are shown as the facade from which they lust after the coat itself.
Class-struggle is mirrored by the sex-as-power theme. To men, sex becomes a celebration of might, whether physical, social or financial. To women, it is the potential to entrap with allure. Célestine the chambermaid is always present and always unattainable. Through this implied promise of sexual gratification she bends men to her will. And still projects an aura of 'purity'. Our handyman tortures a goose before killing it – rather horrible, but in a way it might add to his raw animal appeal. Sweet Célestine is compassionate, kind to children and tolerant. But are such virtues real, or simply part of the charm? Like lipsticks, high heels, chic dresses. And is Buñuel really just telling a story? Or is he, like Haneke many years later (in Caché), manipulating his audience to drive the point home?
This is also Buñuel's only film made in anamorphic widescreen format. Although not showy, the cinematography is powerful. Credits open to the sound of a rushing steam train. We watch, through Célestine's eyes, the countryside flash by. A wide angle lens increases the sense of movement, as if we are propelled by an unstoppable force.
When Joseph tries to kiss Célestine at night by the bonfire, his posture is that of a vampire. A snail crawling across a dead and violated body in the woods is as vivid and shocking as anything from Buñuel's earlier catalogue of slit eyeballs and dead donkeys. But it is Buñuel's acerbic vision of all that is wrong, in all layers of society, that is so chilling.
At one point, Monsieur Rabour is reading the French author JK Huysmans. Huysman's view of the world was as pessimistic as Buñuel's, but it is Buñuel who makes it so all-encompassing. The festering fascist mob who cheer for Chiappe in this film are honouring the same chief of police who prohibited Buñuel's L'Âge d'Or (after fascists destroyed the cinema where it was being shown). There were few governments that liked Buñuel, and we can see that the feeling was mutual.
The film is more political than it is entertaining, which may alienate some viewers who start off liking it. Even the title seems cynical – I don't recall any suggestion of her keeping a journal. Diary Of A Chambermaid is a great vehicle for Moreau, who gets to play many characters in one. A criticism often levelled at mainstream cinema is that women tend to be decoration in male-driven plots. Célestine (or 'Marie' as she is called in another dig at Catholic - or class - depersonalisation) doesn't so much take over the driving seat as suggest a new perspective from which she is in control. Audiences will be divided about whether or not they ultimately like her.
Things may have moved on. Domestic service is less harsh in most parts of the world where it survives today. Fascism has been replaced with subtler forms of rampant and aggressive nationalism. Sex is not always a game of power. But forces of immorality still pose in white robes and high office. 'Commoners' still aspire to the evils they decry. The purity of a saint may be needed to 'enjoy' Diary Of A Chambermaid. But Buñuel stood up for his beliefs. Today, most viewers may content themselves with standing up for his cinematic skills.Reviewed on: 26 May 2008