Diary of a Chambermaid

Diary of a Chambermaid/Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (France 1964 98 mins)

Source: ACMI Collections Prod Co: SPEVA Films/Cine-Alliance/Film Sonor/Dear Film Produzione Prod: Serge Silberman, Michel Safra Dir: Luis Buñuel Scr: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau Phot: Roger Fellous Ed: Louisette Hautecoeur Art Dir: Georges Wakhevitch

Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Géret, Daniel Ivernel, Françoise Lugagne, Jean Ozenne, Muni, Jean-Claude Carrière

Within Buñuel’s oeuvre Diary of a Chambermaid belongs to what CTEQ contributor Saul Austerlitz has called Buñuel’s “elegantly satirical, continental European sage” phase (1). This phase or period also includes The Exterminating Angel (1962), Belle de jour (1967), and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). The objects of satire in the film are consistent with other themes in Buñuel’s repertoire – the clergy, the bourgeoisie, rationality in both narrative and character – as well as something not quite satirised as much as foreshadowed: Fascism. Buñuel claimed to not have seen Jean Renoir’s 1946 Hollywood production of Octave Mirbeau’s novel – but similarities between the directors’ interests in terms of politics and in this case, mise en scène, overlap here (2).

This film’s formal system is almost purely narrative, unlike other surrealist projects (both Buñuel’s and others) that adopt a more associational form; but the spirit or letter of the “surrealist” preoccupations remain. The common surrealist themes of contradiction, of the perverse juxtaposition of seeming oppositions such as sex and death, the clash of social order with erotic attraction, as well as Buñuel’s anti-clerical, anti-bourgeois motifs are present, quite relentless even. Nevertheless, they are all contained within Buñuel’s simple visual style and even tone – and are certainly discreet – contributing to a subtlety that perhaps contributes to this film’s relative critical neglect in the director’s oeuvre.

For instance, a young cleric (played by co-scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) comes to collect chapel wine from Monsieur and Madame Monteil (who along with Monsieur Rabour occupy a Normandy estate) and offer spiritual assistance to Madame. Cold, but not as alarmingly mechanical as Judith Anderson in Renoir’s version, she is unable and unwilling to keep up with the lustful energy of her “robust” husband (and may in fact be concocting arguments to keep him at bay). The curé is at first taken aback by her problem but then embarks on a discussion of suitable styles of caress when the pair are interrupted by Celestine, the titular chambermaid, who cannot rouse Monsieur Rabour. The tone and pace of the film don’t signpost moments like these as visibly (and vividly) as they would be in later films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, when dining and socialising are constantly interrupted by sex and “corpses”.

There is a self-assured evenness to the tempo of the film that matches Celestine’s actions/movements – though she becomes more agitated than the camera ever does (3). The specific use of black-and-white film darkens the already mournful, “triste” autumn countryside and adds to a cumulative foreshadowing that peaks in the final shot. The camera movement is leisurely and generally unrestricted, often including swooping crane and pan shots that for the most part take in a scene (using Franscope, a widescreen aspect ratio) rather than select it. Nevertheless, there are some notable exceptions. For example, it is implied through the editing that Joseph, the gamekeeper, was responsible for the disappearance of Claire. Upon entering Joseph’s cottage, a pan over the jagged metal tools that line his walls suggests the lair of a predator. Carrière states that,

Buñuel did not want mystery to emanate from a well-contrived chiaroscuro; from the timely creaking of a door, from blurring, from slow motion. He thoroughly distrusted every kind of cinematographic effect, rejecting it as facile, arty…. Rejecting virtuosity implies that you are sure of the power of what you are showing. (4)

Perhaps. But a particular aesthetic nevertheless emerges from the choice of aspect ratio, the configuration of mise en scène, and, in this case, the use of long depth-of-field,. The interior of the Monteil estate is elegantly cluttered with the paraphernalia of the wealthy – busts, mirrors, vases, lamps, objet. Madame uses the objects in her initial encounters with Celestine as a way of establishing herself as the head of this hierarchy, pointing out what is precious, what must be preserved.

Indeed, the well-preserved haute bourgeoisie are presented in the manner the source material requires and in the manner one might expect from Buñuel – as corrupt, hypocritical, amusingly repressed and cold. For example, Madame and Monsieur Monteil discuss Celestine’s hygiene as if she is an infected rodent. The distaste, expressed with amusement, sometimes scorn, for the bourgeois social order, considering Buñuel himself had been a part of it (as a member of the landed gentry of Aragon), is not a contradiction as such, but this biographical information does lends it a possible Oedipal flavour that suits the material. We don’t know if Madame is shocked by the particular circumstances of her father’s death (he is found in bed, calves exposed, clutching the black ankle boots Celestine had earlier modeled) and it is that, or a more general indifference, that determines her response – clad in chic funeral attire, she expresses annoyance at an exorbitant inheritance tax.

Buñuel’s surrealist pleasure in contradiction and irrationality is represented via Celestine. Her motivations don’t seem consistent or rational – something deemed a weakness by at least one contemporaneous critic (5). Buñuel omits a line that appears in the novel and in the Renoir version, “No more love for Celestine”, which signals her decision to pursue material comfort rather than romance and would have provided a more visible motive for her union with the Captain – whereas here it seems arbitrary, unlikely. Far from being amour fou, her interest in the Captain extends as far as his material position. Celestine’s disdain for the Monteils and their class does not translate to a disinterest in their advantages, something that was perhaps cued by her introduction – she steps out of the station on wobbly heels (a way of walking that helped win her the part, along with the manner in which she ate lunch), gorgeously clad in a modish coat, leather gloves and fur muff, looking far more like a member of the upper class than one who polishes their cutlery.

Celestine is a heroine and a villain: but she not an anti-hero, a character who acts selfishly but with an underlying commitment to a cause, whether it is defending good or fighting evil. Celestine is not committed to anything; her sudden marriage to the Captain is chosen by Buñuel because the irrational is more faithful to the unconscious. Buñuel’s Celestine avoids the possibly more irrational fate of Mirbeau’s, who ends up with Joseph in Cherbourg, repulsed and attracted by his demonic qualities, aware of his guilt but ultimately “happy to be with him” (6). This situation grants Joseph’s character a more strongly Fascist quality, but was perhaps not broadly political enough for Buñuel, as it seems tied more to an individual psychopathology.

The erotic appeal of the chambermaid derives from her continual presence but inexorable distance and unattainability. She exhibits faithful acquiescence in every area but that where it is most desired. Available but off-limits – a pleasing paradox for the surrealist disposition. Of course, the bourgeoisie, particularly the corrupted creatures of the Buñuel/Renoir variety, are unlikely to refrain from pursuing the hired help, but this circumstance of frustrated, deferred desire creates a frisson that may be as satisfying as the object of desire itself. (It’s certainly something that Georges seems to look forward to with the arrival of each maid – but even he may have to formulate a different kind of passion for the bovine Marianne, who yields to his desultory advances with a weary sorrow.) Celestine’s black and white uniform is never purely utilitarian; when she sets off to investigate Joseph, her white cape and headband make her a nurse, the dead child’s avenger. The uniform also situates her as an object of (Fascist) fantasy, as it is not only black, neat and orderly, but signals her identity and position in the household, as one to whom orders can be given, and for Joseph, one whom he is drawn to obey as well as command.

Another of the elements that contribute to the cumulative implication of the film is the boot, with its erotic and Fascist overtones. Surrealist art places seemingly disparate objects, emotions and situations together. Sometimes the marvelous, the sur-real is created; sometimes sacrilege; and sometimes, as here, it creates an ironic commentary. The boot/foot fetish scene was described by Sight and Sound as superficial, and played only for comedy (7). Indeed, it may not evoke the “crawling revulsion” that Mirbeau intended, but it serves another purpose. Leather boots appear several times in the film: on Celestine and on the demonstrating Fascists (which would be seen in Europe, and in France, in the very near future, to which the film alludes). The first instance is a juxtaposition, of boots and uniform, of lecherous octogenarian and (for the time being) sweet maiden, and is unsettling in its rupture of the scene of duty and etiquette that had been in progress. The second instance is also alarming, but more significant. We see that Joseph is alive and has prospered (despite being incriminated by his own boots), along with the right-wing faction he has supported. Perhaps an admiration for black leather boots should be harmlessly indulged in the boudoir, as part of the uniform of a maid, rather than during a goose-stepping parade as part of the uniform of a Fascist, and in terms of a desire for discipline at the hands of a spouse or servant rather than a dictator.

The film’s political overtones reference class struggle, but more directly the emerging French Fascism of the 1930s that would culminate in the Vichy government. While a more consistent character than Celestine, Joseph is an unrepentant brute: anti-Semitic, murderous, committed in his struggle against the blue-collar “Bolshevists” who would degrade France by attacking the army and the church. Buñuel strengthens his critique by pairing Joseph with a sidekick who is a sexton, alluding to the way that many French clergy (and the Vatican itself) supported the Fascist party. While the demonstration scene at Cherbourg involves a joke from the director (Joseph shouts “Vive Chiappe” – a reference to the prefect of police who banned Buñuel’s 1930 film L’Age d’Or), the situation to which he is drawing attention is anything but.

Endnotes

  1. Saul Austerlitz, “Los Olvidados”, CTEQ: Annotations on Film, February 2003.
  2. While seemingly lighter in tone than Buñuel’s film, the politics are as strong if not stronger in Renoir’s version. But Paulette Goddard’s Celestine is irksomely saccharine and threatens a Lucille Ball zaniness. Moreau’s chic, self-possessed Celestine is a more gratifying interpretation, alternately impassive and playful. Buñuel had originally wanted blonde Spanish actress Silvia Pinal but producer Serge Silberman suggested Truffaut favourite Moreau.
  3. Although in the penultimate shot of the film, an unexpected series of jump-cuts takes the marchers out of sight.
  4. Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film, trans. Jeremy Leggatt, Pantheon, New York, 1994. p. 40.
  5. Tom Milne, “The Two Chambermaids”, The World of Luis Buñuel, ed. Joan Mellen, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, pp. 256–269.
  6. John Baxter, Buñuel, Fourth Estate, London, 1994. p. 269.
  7. Milne, p. 258.

About The Author

Victoria Loy studied film in Australia but currently works as a teaching assistant in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University (Ontario, Canada).