The Diary of a Chambermaid

(Jean Renoir, USA, 1946)


Jean Renoir’s The Diary of a Chambermaid is surely one of the oddest films by a great auteur ever to be rescued from the vaults.

Lovers of Renoir’s French classics of the ’30s like La Règle du Jeu (1939) and La Chienne (1931) will recognise many of its elements, such as satirical farce amidst the denizens of a decadent aristocracy and melodramatic violence springing from possessive passion.

However, this adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s savage novel (scripted by co-producer and cast member Burgess Meredith), made during Renoir’s years in America, is a very watered down, cryptic affair.

Célestine (Paulette Goddard) is a socially mobile chambermaid who enters the bizarre Lanlaire household, where she encounters a stern matriarch (Judith Anderson) and several generations of sickly, spineless, eccentric men.

Evil enters the story via the sinister valet Joseph (Francis Lederer), with whom Célestine entertains an ambiguous relation. The tone of the film oscillates between whimsical sentimentality and a theatre of cruelty – with even the most violent acts (shocking to viewers of the day) overlaid with treacly Hollywood music.

No wonder the great critic André Bazin called it a “slapstick tragedy” merging “burlesque and atrocity”.

Despite its lack of dramatic clarity, the film has an engagingly artificial, dreamlike quality. Most striking is Renoir’s work with the actors, who all abandon themselves to a form of surreal pantomime: shrieking, grimacing, running about, even eating flowers.

Devoted film buffs will want to seek out this rarity – and to compare it to Luis Buñuel‘s far darker 1964 adaptation of Mirbeau’s novel.

MORE Renoir: Partie de campagne, The Woman on the Beach

© Adrian Martin May 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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