The films of Luis Bunuel (1900-1983) are challenging, characterized by frequent excursions into the surreal, and by ambiguities and abstractions that demand active thinking on the part of the viewer. His Diary of a Chambermaid, a darkly droll work,has now been restored and re-released in a sparkling new print–surely not a commercially profitable undertaking, but one for which filmgoers have ample reason to be grateful.
Using Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel as his starting point, Bunuel freelyadapted the work to his own purpose, placing it in the 1930’s, when fascism was on the rise in Europe. While he obviously intended to make a political statement, Bunuel’s interests in Diary probed deeper than politics into the social mores and the morality of the French bourgeoisie that provided fertile soil for a reactionary movement.
With views of towns and countryside seen from a moving train, Bunuel establishes behind the main titles the distance that Celestine (Jeanne Moreau in a perfectly modulated performance) travels from Paris to provincial Normandy where she is newly employed as a chambermaid in the home of a wealthy family. The distance is cultural as well as geographic: Celestine is smartly outfitted in a fur-collared coat and stylish shoes. The latter are immediately noted as inappropriate by Joseph, the outspoken handyman for the estate, who picks her up at the train.
Shoes come into play again when Celestine meets the head of the family, Monsieur Rabour, a somewhat dotty old man who has a shoe fetish in which the chambermaid is expected to–and does–cooperate. (Admiring Celestine’s pretty name, he tells her that, nonetheless, he will call her Marie: "I’ve called all my chambermaids Marie," he explains.)
Rabour’s daughter, Madame Montiel, is firmly in charge of the household. A stickler for cleanliness, she’s obsessed with her valuable possessions and her not so valuable assets as well: she counts the sugar cubes to be sure the servants have not been stealing. Claiming it is painful, Madame is no more generous in sharing her sexual favors with her randy and frustrated husband, who seeks "amour fou"–mad passion–with Celestine. Celestine easily puts him off with a warning of social disease, but the pathetic, dumpy servant girl is not as successful. The sadness of the victimized servant is captured in a tear rolling down her dejected face.
Bunuel is not only indicting the dysfunctional haute bourgeois family; there is a fawning priest who offers laughably ineffectual advice to Madame and there is the next door neighbor, Captaine Mauger, a retired Army officer who is a liar and a braggart. The government bureaucrats don’t escape either, shown as more interested in promulgating obscure regulations than in receiving evidence in a murder.
While the satirical portrayal of these characters provokes rueful laughter, Joseph is not laughable. He denounces "kikes and wops" and actively participates in right wing campaigns calling for the moral regeneration of France. This moral zealot also rapes and brutally murders a young girl of whom Celestine was fond and Celestine seeks to bring him to justice, footwear once again coming into play. In the end, even Celestine is revealed to be an opportunist.
Bunuel’s genius here is not so much in the story he weaves but in the assured way that he accrues incidents and embellishes with images and details that together add up to a very cool, unsentimental commentary on the ways people behave. From the gossiping over the backyard fence, to the slaughter of a goose, to a daughter more upset by inheritance taxes than by the loss of her father, Bunuel’s is a darkly acute view, occasionally relieved by sardonic Swiftian humor and forgiving only of the innocence of childhood.