In Diary of a Chambermaid, Spanish maestro Luis Bunuel narrates the tale of a young woman, Clestine (French star Jeanne Moreau), who travels from her world to a feudal manor, struggles for a time to exist there on her own terms, and is finally swallowed up by a sterile, neurotic, but implacable social order.
The screenplay is based on Octave Mirbeau’s novel, “A Chambermaid’s Diary,” and Bunuel had also acknowledged the influence of Jean Renoir’s 1946 film.
One of Bunuel’s most overtly political films, the tale is set in the late 1920s, suggesting in its ideas and details how fascism became possible, and perhaps even inevitable.
While providing a glimpse of the private life of provincial fascists, Bunuel does not, as in “The Exterminating Angel,” offer a broader social view. Instead, he focuses on intimate details of the process by which a shrewd, compassionate outsider capitulates to a system that she had initially deplored.
Celestin’s relentless fate is established from the start, when she leaves her job in Paris to establish herself in the decadent and isolated environment of an estate in rural France. That this closed world represents not her past but her future prefigures the desperation, which is fulfilled at the conclusion of the film.
Just as the heroine of “Viridiana”arrives at a farm that’s no longer productive, Celestine passes through what the script describes as the “sad countryside” of the provinces.
Celsetine’s first encounter with her employer includes a tour of the family’s fragile treasures (the Chinese vase, the silver snuff box), all suggesting a fragile social order. This inventory makes clear that Celestine has entered a static world inhabited by people as inert as their costly objects art.
The patriarch is, like Don Jaime of “Viridiana,” an aging neurotic whose fetish for female shoes and feet testifies to his long years of isolation and sexual repression.
The family members represent a strange, precious lot. The patriarch, Monsieur Rebour, is, like Don Jaime of Viridiana, an aging neurotic whose fetish for female shoes and feet testifies to long years of isolation and repression. He seems harmless enough when he suggests to his son-in-law that animals may be more beautiful alive than dead. His remark, however, is ironic, as it is made while the two are out hunting. The statement becomes entirely hollow when, in a surprise shot, the old man raises his gun and shatters his target, a butterfly hovering over blossoms.
Rebour’s daughter, Mme. Monteil, is made in her father’s mold. She suppresses her own desires by succumbing to her husband’s twice a week sexual advances. Her friend, the priest, agreeing that such demands are excessive, advises her to refuse to enjoy them. Mme. Monteil assures the priest that she feel no pleasure. Like her father, and Don Jaime before him, Mme. Monteil indulges her fantasies in secret rituals behind locked doors.
Retiring to her bathroom, which is off limits to Celestine, Mme. Monteil prepares solutions in various tubes and bottles. This mysterious activity may manifest a fetish for cleanliness, but Bunuel refuses to be specific, always preferring ambiguity.
However repressed she may be, Mme. Monteil handles the family finances. Control of the family affairs has passed from the patriarch to his daughter rather than to his son in law, Monsieur Monteil, a parasite and a predatory–his only activities are hunting and seducing the female servants. Representing the waste in human terms of bourgeois capitalism, he consumes without replenishing the considerable resources at his disposal as the heiress’s consort.
The upstairs, composed of the residencies of Mme. Monteil, her father, and her petulant husband, has its downstairs counterpart in the servants. If Mme. Monteil rules upstairs, Joseph is the servants’ master. In his respect for traditional institutions and fondness for discipline, Joseph mimics his superiors.
But while his masters release their sexual energy in fetishism, Joseph rapes and murders the innocent orphan girl Claire who frequents the estate. The little girl, who gathers snails in the forest, greets him, then offers him a snail which he refuses. It’s only when the moon comes out, illuminating the forest creatures, that we see through the brush the child’s legs, bloodied and stiff, three snails attached to her calf and crawling toward her knee.
Claire’s horrific murder is not entirely unexpected. Thr guileless Claire roams alone in the forest like Little Red Riding Hood of folk tradition. When she meets the surly Joseph, who had once tortured a goose before killing it because “the more it suffers the better it is,” the fatal outcome is surprising in its visual detail. The dead child’s body is discovered after the director first focuses on a squirrel and two rabbits. The brutalized corpse is described as being “like one animal among others,” joining the goose in Joseph’s string of tortured victims.
Joseph’s pathological character is manifest in complacent racism, sadistic bent, and self righteous satisfaction in reporting to his superior that he observed Celestine talking to the neighbors, all indications of the violence that lies beneath his calm exterior.
When alone with Claire one day, he grabs her around the neck, turns her face to him, and demands of the little girl, “Look at me. Look in my eyes. What do you see?” The amazed, terrified Claire replies, “I see myself.” Joseph quickly reassures her, “That proves I’m fond of you.” Celestine, who has just arrived, stares with concern at Joseph’s hands around the child’s neck. Confronted with Claire’s innocence, Joseph’s ruthlessness begins to surface. When he meets the child in the forest, he seems to warn her that he is losing control of his dark emotions. As he moves on in his cart, he calls over his shoulder to the little red riding hood figure behind him, “Watch out for the wolf.”
Bunuel’s meticulous portrayal of Joseph’s predatory, fascistic instincts is accurate, including the objects in his room. the crucifix, a portrait of a military officer, a length of rope, an alarm clock, which are keys to his personality.
During the first half of the film, Celestine is the perfect domestic servant who’s passive and correct, navigating safely through a “household of personal shipwrecks.” But Claire’s murder angers Celestine and in the second half of the film she becomes more aggressive. Determined to find Claire’s killer she stalks her prime suspect, Joseph. She goes to the gardener’s room prepared to seduce him. When she asks him to confess to killing Claire, Joseph, suddenly becomes amorous. “Claire does not concern us now,” he replies.
Celestine visits the city hall to discuss Claire’s death with the police, which sends two officers visit Joseph. In a suspenseful scene of controlled tension, Celestine sews while she listens to the police, using data she has provided, present evidence against Joseph for his arrest.
Just as Bunuel suggests in Viridiana, through continuous juxtaposition of Rita and the heroine, that the child is a reflection of the innocence of the mature woman, in Diary there is a similar association between Claire and Celestine. Like a mother hawk, Celestine watches Joseph’s every move when he puts his hands around Claire’s neck one evening at dinner. She sits by Claire and caresses her when the sleepy child puts her head down.
When the sacristan visits Joseph and discusses with him the slaughter of Jesus in Romania, Celestine, disgusted with such talk, gathers Claire in her arms and puts her to bed as if to protect her from sinister forces. Having had enough of the Monteil household, Celestine informs her employers that she is quitting. She is already at the train station when she overhears two officers discussing the brutal assault on the child. At once Celestine begins putting information together in her mind and returns to the estate with a new sense of resolution.
On her return, Celestine finds her neighbors discussing the murder in front of Captain Mauger’s villa. Mauger is a retired army officer still interested in women despite his advanced age. In his anti Semitism and love of discipline, he is an upper class version of Joseph. Mauger has fascist attitudes and exploits those around him, including Rose, his servant and mistress. Yet his ridiculous bearing when he sticks out his chest, his costume of cast off army garb, and his delight in annoying his neighbors, mark him as a clown.
Mauger’s favorite action is dumping trash over the wall onto Monteil’s property. Unlike Monteil, who seduces servants, Mauger is at least open and direct, and he invites Celestine to visit him. Celestine admits to Mauger and the other villagers who discuss the rape murder. Soon after, Celestin meets Mauger. She is stupefied to learn that the old soldier has dismissed Rose, because she was jealous of Mauger’s conversation with Celestine. “Let’s talk squarely, like soldiers. Celestine, do you want me to marry you?”
Bunuel shock the viewers by cutting from the scene of Joseph’s arrest to a village wedding in which Celestine is the bride of Mauger. In Mirbeau’s book, Celestine marries Joseph, the murderer, but Bunuel’s strategy is more credible, as, after all, the dream of most servants is to improve their lot by marrying into money.
Even Jean Renoir, who filmed a less violent version of Diary, had Celestine marry the scion of the wealthy family. But in trying to advance herself, Celestine has succumbed to the kind of life for which she had earlier scorned her employers. Celestine the clever worker has no friends to join in combat against capitalistic greed. She has joined the bourgeoisie, though with a sense of resignation that has haunted her since Claire’s murder, an event symbolizing the death of innocence.
“Diary of a Chambermaid” is unique in Bunuel’s canon. It does not end with an ambiguous scene of potentially contradictory meaning but with an unequivocal statement. A sullen Celestine has her coffee in bed in a room hung with the guns and military mementos, liked by her new husband, who stands at her bedside in suspenders, an aging martinet.
He brings Celestine the news that Joseph has been acquitted for lack of evidence. Bunuel then cuts to a demonstration of right wing patriots marching with banners, “France for the French” and “Down with Foreigners.” In the final frame, Joseph, his arm around his new wife, steps out of his cafe to applaud the marchers and to join in shouting, “Vive Chiappe!”
In the final account, it is not Celestine’s sellout that stuns, but the inexorable power of the bourgeoisie, against which individual protest seems hopeless and futile. The great French actress Jeanne Moreau (“Jules et Jim”) portrays most vigorously the intriguing and complex heroine.
Running time: 97 Minutes