The Diary of a Chambermaid
Take No Prisoners
The Diary of a Chambermaid occurs at a curious and underestimated moment in Luis Buñuel’s long career. Along with the short Simon of the Desert (1965) that followed it, it is usually regarded as part of a lull period between The Exterminating Angel (1962) on one side and Belle de jour (1967) on the other. What the former film is taken as capping-off in a Spanish-language idiom, and the latter film credited with relaunching in a sleek, French context, is (of course) Buñuelian Surrealism.
This is the Buñuel with whom the majority of us are most comfortable: shocking or beguiling visions, zany humour, heady satire – with a leaning either towards shabby neo-realism in black-and-white (Spanish-language) or glamorous European settings and stars in colour (Catherine Deneuve, Bulle Ogier, Pierre Clémenti …).
The Diary of a Chambermaid has some splendid image-shocks (the unforgettable apparition of snails on the leg of a raped and murdered young girl, as brutal an evocation of Little Red Riding Hood in a malign forest as Philippe Grandrieux would later propose in Sombre ; an off-screen rifle blasting a sweet butterfly on a flower), a good deal of satirical comedy of bourgeois manners, and the duo of Jeanne Moreau and Michel Piccoli.
But it is also, deliberately, a downer: dismissed as old-fashioned naturalism by many critics of the day, and imposing before us a uniformly grey bleakness. Buñuel’s Swiss champion Freddy Buache rightly acclaimed it in his 1970 book The Cinema of Luis Buñuel as “intentionally stark” and carrying “a nasty direct punch”. (1)
One immediate sign of this – so easily missed, still today, by even sophisticated viewers – assumes its fully contagious force once you become aware of it: even more radically than Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds from the previous year of 1963, The Diary of a Chambermaid is a film utterly without musical accompaniment – a strategy that pokes a huge hole in our usual, unconscious processing as viewers-listeners of the dramatic, cinematic texture of events.
One way to understand the film’s tone – quite unique in the director’s career, but taken up again and differently at a more opportune career moment in the masterful Tristana of 1970 – is to grasp the project as, in fact, post-Surrealist.
The source material, Octave Mirbeau’s novel (presented in first-person diary form, and quickly translated around the world at the turn of the 20th century), was a passion of Buñuel’s young-adult reading life in the mid 1920s, alongside (as Diary’s co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, tells us) Pierre Louÿs and Joris-Karl Huysmans – and to this taste he remained fanatically faithful, managing to nurture adaptation projects from all three authors, realising two of them (this, and That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977).
But 1964 – with Buñuel (never forget this) already 64 – was a long way from both the young Luis’ 1925 and Mirbeau’s 1900. There is, if not exactly a disenchantment with Surrealism evident in the finished film, at least a sense that the movement has long been diffused and defused, become part of a bland mainstream (hence the insertion of repeated amour fou declarations into the pathetic mouth of Piccoli’s character Monteil).
The film’s timing, after four glorious years of the Nouvelle Vague (about to fizzle out in France, but just assuming its belated status as legend in many other places), did it no favours at the box-office, but seems to register an indirect, coded message: although Buñuel was accused of laboriously settling accounts with matters no longer relevant to the ‘60s (such as the rise of the ultra-right, anti-Semitic movements of the ‘20s, in league with Church, State and Military), his work offered a distorted, unflattering reflection to a national present that, in its fascination with modernist style, managed to turn its back on virtually any representation of the Algerian crisis.
Early on, the film engineers a brilliant twist, one that must have been subtly disconcerting to many Buñuel fans, then as now. We begin – via the handy, not-too-problematic identification-figure of Céléstine (Moreau) – with the bourgeois comedy of manners: repression (especially in the ever-itchy form of sexual frustration), absurd regulation (Buñuel lingers on every detail of meal times, bathroom preparations for bedtime, clothing, sitting, playing parlour games …), everyday power struggles (a preview of Fassbinder), and (eventually) the evidence of every kind of perversion (especially when randy Monteil ultimately decides to leave aside his taste for beautiful young servants and take whomever is female, on two legs, and able to be bullied into submission).
But then, when we move “downstairs” in terms of the classic hierarchy of class-based melodrama, we find nothing that would be, by contrast, life-affirming or positive (like the all-singing-dancing-loving servant class below deck in James Cameron’s Titanic ). No: downstairs is where we see the rise of a New Right in its ugliest manifestation, especially embodied in the figure of Joseph (Georges Géret).
So there is no positive pole in the diagram of this story (which is drawn, à la Bertolt Brecht, via the hyprocrisies of the characters and the graded patterns of comparison-association they form), no one escapes the film’s corrosive excoriation – save for, perhaps, the ethically motivated Céléstine, the wise outsider from Paris, less conniving and upwardly-climbing than in Mirbeau, but nonetheless morally ambiguous at key moments … especially when she is trying to bed a succession of guys useful to her private, secret scheme.
Buache also called The Diary of a Chambermaid “extremely well-balanced”. (2) He’s right: at exactly its mid-way point, there is a superb concatenation of three key events. Old man Rabour (Jean Ozenne) dies, presumably from an excess of fetishistic pleasure; the child Claire (Dominique Sauvage) is murdered; and Céléstine – looping the story and the contours of its closed world exactly – returns to the same train station she emerged from at the start, in order to leave town. But the bad news about Claire hooks her, and she takes herself back into the household fray, this time with a plan (to seduce Joseph and elicit a confession from him): from this point, the narrative escalates, ever so gradually, in its pace, tension and “moves”, and the accumulation-repetition (upon which Buñuel’s work frequently rests) shifts into a higher gear. It is a true lesson in narrative film construction.
Let us return to an interesting word: naturalism. Not as an aesthetic style – for Buñuel’s so-called transparency or simplicity in the means of his staging and cutting is every bit as complex and cagey as Fritz Lang’s, and uses a similar syntax of reframings and body-choreography – but as a literary, cultural and philosophical heritage. In the eighth chapter of Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Gilles Deleuze yokes Buñuel to that Zolaesque tradition most popularly embodied in film history by Erich von Stroheim: all humans are animals, subject to their basest drives, and in that way irredeemably “stupid” (in the philosophical sense!), taking whatever fragile order they have managed to erect around them down into the entropic depths of degradation and decay.
This is, essentially, Buñuel’s Weltanschauung in The Diary of a Chambermaid: there is no Utopian moment of revolution, reform or righteous justice; the action follows the grim, inexorable logic of what Deleuze calls “the steepest slope”. (3)
Hence the very particular inflection that this film gives to its presentation of fetishism, so often (indeed, usually) a source of erotic celebration in Buñuel, from L’age d’or and El (1953) through to the final French productions. But fetishism is not really the source of pleasure here, merely the sign of a social perversion of the drives, a shriveled-up rerouting of desires that only long ago (in the Surrealist heyday?) could have exploded in their natural state out of the cocoon of paper-thin repression.
Here, by contrast, repression-frustration smothers all, and everything in its net festers (hence Nature itself reduced to the icon-level of slimy snails). And also, more generally within the naturalist line Deleuze sketches, the emphasis on passing time, ageing, “all the cruelty of Chronos”, (4) especially in comparison with the innocent beauty of a child, or the porcelain good looks of Jeanne Moreau: the signs of time, what it does to bodies and selves, are uniformly disgusting. (Jean Renoir too – a filmmaker whom Deleuze notes was often tempted by naturalism – made use of this same, pointed contrast in his very different 1946 rendering of Mirbeau’s book.)
The ending of Buñuel’s film, in this light, is perfectly naturalist: with Céléstine’s revenge plan, at the last moment, thwarted by the network of right-wing buddy privilege, Buñuel releases the story to the noisy street and its ugly crowds, with an unimprisoned Joseph now the shopkeeper he always dreamt of being, and with a substitute-Céléstine on his arm – and then the dark, brooding sky filling with lightning above … a sole Expressionist touch in this otherwise resolutely on-the-ground, disquieting movie. (5)
MORE Buñuel: Un Chien andalou
1. Freddy Buache (trans. Peter Graham), The Cinema of Luis Buñuel (London: The Tantivy Press/New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1973; original Swiss edition 1970), p. 140. back
2. Ibid. back
3. Gilles Deleuze (trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam), Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 124.
This review distills points I make in greater detail on the feature-length
audio commentary accompanying The Diary
of a Chambermaid for its Australian DVD release (Madman, 2010).
© Adrian Martin July 2010