Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau
Cinematographer: Roger Fellous
Producer: Michel Safra and Serge Silberman
This is the last film available from Buñuel on Netflix and rounds out a filmography dominated by surrealist pieces that I often found too abstract to enjoy. However, it was the last few of his films I watched, Belle de Jour (1967) and The Young One (1960) that showed an alternative side to the filmmaker; offering straight forward narratives containing Buñuel's signature images and quirky characters. Diary of a Chambermaid follows the style, providing a sexually charged and often disturbing story centered around a maid who finds herself in a world of predators and villainy.
The film opens up with Célestine’s (Jeanne Moreau) POV as she watches a train. She arrives in a rural town, catching a ride in a carriage where she tells the driver that the place seems dreary and doesn’t seem like a place where people have much fun. She arrives at the mansion, occupied by an elderly and horny old man M. Rabour (Jean Ozenne), his asexual and high strung daughter, Madam Monteil (Françoise Lugagne) who says the act hurts too much, and her husband who’s slowly going crazy from being unable to have sex with his wife, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli).
Celestine first encounter with M. Rabour involves him asking her to read a book of conservative philosophy, in which he asks if he can grab her calf and later offering to exchange her shoes, revealing a bizarre foot fetish when he forces her to put on some polished black boots and walk around, only for days later to be found dead in bed with the boots, suggesting he died from non-stop masturbation of sorts.
Celestine meets the rest of the help, including Marianne (Muni) and Joseph (Georges Géret) who’s a right wing nationalist professing his anit-semitic views for all to hear. Given today’s debate on immigration, the parallels are eerie as he calls for “law and order” and how the Jews are destroying the fabric of society which will soon utter in a right wing revolution which he increasingly supports throughout the film. Celestine also meets the neighbor who despises the Rabour family, throwing endless amounts of garbage into their lawn.
The neighbors have a young daughter, Claire (Dominique Sauvage), who often hangs out at the house, scrounging for food. When she’s out in the woods picking up snails, she meets Joseph who warns her of the woods and the wolves inside before he follows her in. Reminding me of The Young One, Buñuel cuts to a wild boar chasing a rabbit before cutting to an incredibly disturbing view of the young girl’s legs peeking out from the tree, covered in blood with the snails crawling all over.
The murder ignites a town-wide investigation, but with no leading suspects, police quickly hit a dead end. By this point, Celestine has had enough of the bizarre family and opts to leave until she hears about the murder, returning back in order to help the investigation, quickly suspecting that Joseph was responsible which he denies.
It’s around this point that the narrative gets a bit peculiar in structure. Aside from Celestine’s sudden desire to up and leave, she seems to seduce Joseph into admitting his responsibility, going so far as to wear some lingerie and head to his room above the barn, vowing to marry him and help open a cafe to assist with his revolutionary desires, hoping that he’ll admit to the murder which he continues to deny.
From there the film picks up even faster, moving from a series of memorable scenes - some disturbing, others weird. Madam Monteil tells a priest (Jean-Claude Carrière) about her inability to have sex due to the pain. Her husband propositions Marianne who, fearing for her job, agrees to sleep with him in the barn. And the neighbor proposes to Celestine after saying she should sue the Rigour family. It’s the type of rapid series of developments that seem to come from the confines of adapting a more nuanced book.
By the end, Celestine pulls the metal tip from Joseph’s boot and plants it in the woods which the police find and later arrest him, just as he was assembling right wing literature and weapons to take to the rally. The film cuts forward and Celestine is now married to the neighbor, relishing in the upper class life she always wanted while Joseph somehow had been released from prison - even though he raped and murdered a young girl - and the film cuts to street protest, with dozens of men on the shipyards declaring, “Down with the immigrants,” as Joseph watches from the cafe he wanted.
In the end, I’m not exactly sure what the story is about other than a mild satire on the upper classes who feel free to do whatever they wish, completely detached from the lower classes which serve them. Similar to Barry Lyndon (1975), I get semblances of what the story’s about, but it’s from coherent. Checking out some info on the book, author Octave Mirbeau said he was exploring how servants were a form of modern slaves; reluctantly accepting the sexual harassment and assault of their bosses in order to avoid losing their jobs and fall further into poverty. The book was told in a nonlinear fashion and abandoned the realism often found in other work from the period. While Buñuel accommodates the former, the loss of objectivity just doesn’t accommodate the story. In fact, it seems this could have been one of the few films that could have used a bit more surrealism.
The movie leaves you feeling gross as you watch people in positions of power exploit and prey upon their servants who they know can’t or won’t do anything about it. On the spectrum of Buñuel's work, this is center-realistic. It contains images and moments that stick in your mind; namely the little girl murdered in the woods with the snails crawling on her legs, but beyond that it seems to only touch the tangent of serious ideas. There’s the undercurrent of anti-semitic revolution boiling beneath, but hearing no more than discussions prevents me from grasping how it all connected; especially given that Joseph was one of the servants. It’s another film that warrants another viewing, but I’m just not sure when I’d ever go back.
BELOW: Not much on YouTube so here's a trailer
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.