Sunday 13 September 2009

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Star: Jeanne Moreau

It's far too long since I've seen a Buñuel film, unless you count his contributions to Johnny Got His Gun of the scenes that involved Jesus. Buñuel, the Spaniard who pioneered surrealism on film, made movies across the globe, beginning in Spain and ending in Mexico, but including multinational productions like Belle de Jour and this film, starring French actresses like Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau. Moreau is still making films today, but was well established by the time she made Diary of a Chambermaid, having already made Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers for Louis Malle, La Notte for Michaelangelo Antonioni, The Trial for Orson Welles and, perhaps most notably of all, Jules and Jim for Francois Truffaut.

She's the chambermaid of the title, Céléstine by name, who has come from Paris to the countryside to take up a position in the house of the Monteils. Mme Monteil is decent enough though with a predilection towards petty tyranny, always finding fault and suggesting new things that could be done wrong if there isn't any to find. M Monteil is decent enough too, though his a bit of a hound dog. They have a strange relationship, with her not jealous of his knocking up previous maids but unhappy about what it costs her. Then again, apparently she can't have sex because, as she tells the priest, he's too vigorous and she's sick and it hurts her. Everything we see though suggests that he just does whatever she tells him to.

The grandfather of the house, M Rabour, is a little strange himself, deciding to call Céléstine Marie, as its shorter, wanting her to read to him aloud while he feels up her calves and puts her in leather boots to parade around in for him. Downstairs Joseph rules the roost though nobody else seems to like him and given that he likes torturing animals, that's hardly surprising. Only the sexton gets on with him because they share a racist agenda of purifying France of the wops and the Jews. He's also the informer of the house, passing on anything anyone does to the masters. He's been there fifteen years, he says, and they trust him, though nobody downstairs does. They clam up whenever he walks into the kitchen.

The one everyone really trusts is Céléstine, because she keeps herself to herself and does her job. The men all lust after her in their own way, Joseph vigorously, M Rabour politely according to his fetish, M Monteil surreptitiously. Even Capt Mauger, the next door neighbour, pursues her in an offhand way, even though the two families are effectively at war, fighting petty battles about throwing trash over the fence and cutting tree branches when they protrude into the each other's gardens. Céléstine is the only person that both sides talk to.

She's also apparently the catalyst for pretty much anything happens in the film, making us wonder quite what Buñuel had in mind. How much of it, for instance, is deliberate action on her part and how much by merely being who she is? She's certainly the heroine, the most decent and caring character in the film, but her actions aren't always as appropriate as they might be, and she pulls her own shenanigans too. We never find out whether Joseph really does rape and murder young Claire in the woods, though it's heavily suggested, but we do know that Céléstine believes it absolutely and ingratiates herself into his good graces so as to set him up for the crime she thinks he committed. In the end she reduces herself to the same level as the class she works for by becoming one of them, apparently no longer any different.

Really this isn't a film driven by plot, instead it's a portrait of the classes that's driven by character. The source novel by Octave Mirbeau, written in 1900, is apparently even more overt than this adaptation about suggesting not just that servitude is slavery but that when those in service gain power they continue the same abuse. Mirbeau apparently decries both what he sees as the exploiters and the exploited and doesn't come out on either side. Buñuel's version does the same, by setting up the standard barbs against the upper classes but countering them with barbs against the lower classes too. Nobody really comes out as good or bad, merely somewhere amongst the grey shades and where depends on perspective. As such it's hardly a film to leap out at us and one that seems to just end, but it resonates with us and makes us think.

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