Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bind Spot #3: Diary of a Chambermaid

Written as part of the series hosted by Ryan at The Matinee.

While watching Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid this weekend, I kept asking different "Why..." questions. Namely, why did I choose this particular film for this project?
I mean, I know why in theory: Of the Buñuel films I own, this was the earliest, and it seemed like a good warm-up for both the current version with Lea Seydoux in the title role (as perfect casting for Benoît Jacquot as Jeanne Moreau was for Buñuel) and Buñuel's later psychosexual masterpiece, Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve. Unfortunately, I don't really think it ended up being either of those things, nor was it overall a good representation of Buñuel as a filmmaker.

Things start off well enough, with shots of scenery passing outside of a train window just out of focus enough for us to be not entirely sure what we're looking at. But it eventually becomes clear, and we see Jeanne Moreau as Célestine, a woman from Paris come to the country to serve as chambermaid to a bourgeois family. The family certainly has its quirks: Madame seems to care far more about the things in the house than the people in it, including her own husband who, incidentally, apparently comes on to everything with boobs and legs. And of course, the patriarch, to whom we are introduced as he shoots a butterfly off a flower, only to proclaim instantly afterwards that he has both never shot a gun before and actually quite likes butterflies. Serving him is one of Célestine's primary duties, and in addition to having her serve him herbal tea, he wants her to wear and walk around in some old boots.
That's pretty much the extent of anything sexually perverse in the film. Yes, Monsieur makes some advances to Célestine, which she rebuffs - only after flirting with him extensively (after which he takes the other, "ugly" maid out into the barn to do things with). And yes, there is some drama around a young girl who for some unexplained reason hangs around the house and whose body is found at around the film's midway point, having been raped and murdered. It is strongly implied, although never spoken outright, that the house's farmer/handyman Joseph, who is quite politically active in France's nascent fascist movement, committed this crime.

And that right there is my biggest problem with this film. In adapting the novel by Octave Mirbeau, Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (this is the first of several collaborations between the two, another reason why I chose this film) chose to update the novel's turn-of-the-century setting to the 1930s, a time of some political unrest in France. Apparently. I don't really know French history THAT well. But whatever the history was, politics makes many appearances throughout the film, and strangely, the film ends with Joseph, a proprietor of a café, just like the one he had talked about starting with Célestine (she became intimate with him in order to confirm her suspicion that he killed the little girl). He cheers on protestors saying (among other things) "Vive Chiappe!" Jean Chiappe was a popular police prefect who, because of his very right-leaning politics, had successive governments try in vain to remove him from his post. In February 1934, they finally succeeded, and the far-right leagues launched a demonstration in protest, which - this being France - rapidly deteriorated into a full-on riot against the government. Buñuel had a personal vendetta against Chiappe because he banned L'Age d'Or when he was police prefect in Paris.

Anyway, history lesson aside, the decision to cede the film's final scene to Joseph is odd, since Célestine is very obviously our main character. In the end, she marries the blowhard ex-Army officer neighbor of her former employers, hires the "ugly" maid she used to work with to work for her, and gives the impression of becoming everything her employers were. Not worse, but certainly no better. The film could have ended there just fine. But it continues on to the protest scene with Joseph, and I'm suddenly lost. I'm sure this ending probably had more meaning to the French audiences of 1964, but it went way over my head. Yes, seeing these hordes of people marching in the streets is chilling, but it does not seem of a piece with the story of the rest of the film. There's been political talk in the film, so it doesn't come completely out of left field, but it hasn't been the main storyline, and this one scene hijacks the narrative in such a way that I had to question the entire film I just watched... and not in a good way.
If there's a reason to see Diary of a Chambermaid, it's Jeanne Moreau. She's perfect as Célestine, impenetrable yet somehow completely open. We are constantly aware of what she's thinking, even if what she feels about it remains a tantalizing mystery. She single-handedly gives the film whatever sexiness it has, and that gorgeous face makes the last scene perfectly ambiguous - is Célestine happy to get what she has always wanted and becoming just like her employers whom she hated, or is she finding that this life that once seemed so great really isn't fulfilling at all? It's great, great work.

Buñuel is certainly on good form for most of the film, as well. Diary of a Chambermaid is certainly a great-looking film, and while it largely lacks the surrealist imagery that is a hallmark of the director's work, it does contain its fair share of striking images - the butterfly getting shot off the flower; the dead girl's bare leg, snails slowly crawling up it; and one particular shot of Monsieur and Madame that looks for all the world like a split-screen, emphasizing just how separate their lives are.

But for me, this Diary of a Chambermaid doesn't nearly live up to its potential. The material seems like a good fit for Buñuel, but he doesn't do enough with it: It's not sexy enough, not perverse enough, not funny enough, not subversive enough, and in the end, not focused enough. For all that happens, it doesn't feel like a story with an arc, just a series of events with an arbitrary endpoint that practically comes out of nowhere. Could that be making a larger point about life? Perhaps. But I don't think so. Not in this case. In this case, it looks like Buñuel's personal stuff got in the way of making this as good as it could have been.

Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une Femme de Chambre)
Year: 1964
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
Screenplay by: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, Françoise Lugagne, Jean Ozenne, Daniel Invernel, Muni
Rating: **1/2


  1. Interesting, I've never heard of this one and the only project of Luis Buñuel's I've actually seen is Un Chien Andalou (a very bizarre film in itself). From what you've said, it doesn't sound like anything particularly great, although I feel I should address your concerns about the lack of sex in this film.

    Diary of a Chambermaid came out in 1964, right around the end of the Production Code. It was first relaxed in the 1940's to allow for propaganda films about America's involvement in World War II, but over the following years and into the 1950's filmmakers were able to explore more controversial themes. However, just because the Production Code was relaxed doesn't mean it wasn't enforced on some level. There was still only so much people could get away with. It was starting in the 1950's and into the 60's that there was a series of legal cases which eventually brought an end to the Studio Era.

    By the 1960's there was a lot more people could get away with, but it was still hard to show sex in any explicit form. A lot of films touching on sexual themes had to use extreme caution at the time. Something similar to what you described happened with Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, a film about a pedophilia in which all of the actual sex happens off-screen and is mostly only alluded to. Of course, later on you get the movie Deep Throat which changes everything, but that wouldn't come out for a few years when Diary of a Chambermaid was released.

    1. I realize that this all might have been quite scandalous to the eyes of people living in 1964, but would the Production Code really affected this film, which was made and primarily released in France?

    2. Ah, I didn't think of that, although in 1964 that would have been during the height of the French New Wave, which started because of French critics watching American crime films from the 40's and 50's and wanting to make similar films while also putting their own spin on them. Maybe that had something to do with it?