DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (LE JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE) (Luis Buñuel, 1964)
Jeanne Moreau and Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid
Director Luis Buñuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID tracks the great French actress Jeanne Moreau as Célestine, a domestic servant who leaves Paris to work at a country manor. Célestine soon discovers that her bourgeois employers are riddled with obsessions. Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne) is a sour, chilly woman who is fixated on cleanliness. Madame does not satisfy the sexual appetite of Monsieur (Michel Piccoli). He has made a habit of fulfilling his desires with the chambermaids, and he quickly takes a shine to Célestine.
Madame’s father, Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne), may have the strongest obsessions. His fetishes have devoured him so completely that he makes a request to call Célestine by the same name he used for those preceding her.
Célestine does what is necessary to keep her position secure. She accommodates the old man’s obsessions, observes Madame’s commands, and rejects Monsieur’s advances while leading him to believe she possesses the indulgent sexual history he imagines she has.
For much of DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID we do not see who Célestine is. She is the tabula rasa on which others fill in her assumed characteristics. In addition to her employers, the gardener Joseph (Georges Géret) thinks she is sympathetic to his anti-Semitic and nationalistic beliefs. Captaine Mauger (Daniel Ivernel), the neighbor who detests the Monteils, is captivated by Célestine and views her merely as a tool to get what he wants. (Of course, Célestine regards him in the same terms, although her motivations are less clear for the majority of the film.)
Buñuel is nothing short of merciless on the bourgeoisie. As one would expect from him, DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is both disturbing and humorous. Dark obsessions manifest themselves in violence and hypocrisy. Monsieur Monteil alleviates his sexual tension through hunting. Joseph’s strident philosophies and anger are realized in despicable form. The Captaine’s actions become increasingly hostile. Monsieur Rabour is terribly pathetic, but his forwardness is funny in a sad way. It’s almost as if his development was arrested in childhood. His daughter stands in for his mother when he yells for her to leave him alone while he’s secretly having his fetishes satisfied in a locked room. Madame is incapable of discussing her physical distance with her husband but can openly talk about it with a Catholic priest who comes in search of donations.
Françoise Lugagne, Jeanne Moreau, and Michel Piccoli
Célestine is a tricky character because while she observes the rotten souls of these people, souls that are infested with malignance as the house is populated with rodents, she also wishes to lead this lifestyle eventually. Célestine takes shocking steps to realize her goals as well as do what is right, and sometimes the two cross in unappetizing ways. No character escapes untouched by scandal.
Three specific moments in the film neatly encapsulate the cruelty in these lives and their distaste, if not outright hatred, for beauty. One is implied mostly through audio. Joseph kills a goose for a meal, but he relishes the elongated suffering he inflicts upon it. In one of DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID'S strongest visuals, a butterfly on a flower is shot with a gun and obliterated. Probably the most disturbing image is evidence of a corpse with snails crawling on it. None of these moments are explicit the way they very likely would be if depicted today, but they are hauntingly resonant and all the more powerful.
Jean Ozenne and Georges Géret
DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is a piercing examination of the bourgeoisie and its obsessions. Buñuel shows us the horrifying actions and results with varying amounts of drama and humor like only he could.
(This is a revised version of my Criterion DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)