Diary of a Chambermaid

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Jeanne Moreau, eternally beautiful in Diary.
  • Jeanne Moreau, eternally beautiful in Diary.

One of the less seen of the late-period Luis Buñuel films, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), newly reissued in Cinemascope and a crisp (if brooding) black-and-white, is also one of the strangest of the director’s mature works. Based on the same novel which was filmed by Jean Renoir in 1946, the film has the familiar contours of a period-piece exposé of bourgeois hypocrisy, laced with the director’s dark humor. But the tone is uncharacteristically mixed, and what begins as a rather kinky comedy of bad manners slips into a very grim place before arriving at a savage, hallucinatory ending.

Buñuel and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (this would be the beginning of a six-film collaboration) moved the time of the novel from turn-of-the century to the late ’30s, in order to emphasize the story’s subtext of racism and fascism. The title character is played by Jeanne Moreau, newly arrived at the French country estate of the elderly Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne). The place is soon revealed to be a hotbed of bent and unrequited desire. Rabour is a harmless if avid shoe fetishist, his daughter is egregiously “frigid” (sex with her husband literally pains her) and his son-in-law, the perpetually overheated Monsieur Montell (Michel Piccoli in a wonderfully nuanced comic performance) is so horny that only a sense of middle-class propriety keeps him from raping Moreau outright.

Early on, Buñuel and Carrière seem in a sly mood, relishing Rabour’s love for footwear and acknowledging the source of his name by having him ask Moreau to read aloud from Huysmans’ decadent classic Against Nature (whose French title is A rebours ) while he squeezes her calf (she complies).

But the household has a more sinister character living among these eccentrics, the gamekeeper Joseph (Georges Geret), a loutish anti-Semite and xenophobe, and a member of the local burgeoning fascist party. When Geret becomes the main suspect in the murder of a child (depicted as a surrealistic horror, with dark blood and slimy snails), the film becomes a little heavy-handed in its depiction of the absolutism of his evil nature. It’s overkill that’s balanced somewhat by the moral ambiguity of Moreau’s chambermaid, whose curiosity about the gamekeeper seems to go beyond just trying to find out if he’s actually the murderer.

As usual, Buñuel treats all this madness as if it were the most natural thing in the world — as it may well be. He seems most at home showing Rabour worshiping a pair of woman’s boots, or the sad-sack Montell descending wolfishly on a homely housemaid who responds with tears which could be either gratitude or remorse. Meanwhile, the larger, allegorical bits come across as forced. But still, it’s Buñuel at a point in his career when he could do pretty much what he wanted to do — and worth seeing for that.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

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