DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, THE (Journal d’une femme de chambre, Le)

(director/writer: Luis Buñuel; screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carrière/from the novel “Le Journal d’une femme de chambre” by Octave Mirbeau; cinematographer: Roger Fellous; editor: Louisette Hautecoeur/Luis Buñuel; cast: Jeanne Moreau (Céléstine), Georges Géret (Joseph), Daniel Ivernel (Captain Mauger), Françoise Lugagne (Madame Monteil), Muni (Marianne), Jean Ozenne (Monsieur Rabour), Michel Piccoli (Monsieur Monteil), Jean-Claude Carrière (Priest), Dominique Sauvage (Claire), Gilberte Géniat (Rose), Bernard Musson (Sexton), Claude Jaeger (The judge); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Serge Silberman/Michel Safra; The Criterion Collection; 1964-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Remarkably subtle and perceptive straightforward narrative on the rise of French fascism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Luis Buñuel (“The Exterminating Angel”/”Simon of the Desert”) moves into what can be called his French period, in the later stages of his career, with this remarkably subtle and perceptive straightforward narrative on the rise of French fascism, one of his neglected great films. It’s based on the muckraking scandalous turn-of-the-century novel by Octave Mirbeau “Le Journal d’une femme de chambre” that provides insights into the unstable French political structure. Buñuel changes the time frame to the 1930s. Mirbeau’s novel was previously put to the screen by Jean Renoir in a 1946 Hollywood version. Both versions are admirable, though most critics have tended to favor the more lighthearted Renoir one while I decidedly prefer the more acerbic Buñuel one. This was Buñuel’s first of many collaborations with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who also plays a clueless priest giving uptight official Catholic dogmatic advice about deriving no pleasure from sex and that having sex twice a week is too much. It’s shot in a shimmering gorgeous black-and-white ‘Scope, and has no musical score relying instead on the natural location sounds.

The 32-year-old sophisticated, narcissistic, ambitious, manipulative and beautiful Célestine (Jeanne Moreau), a feminist before there was such a creature, some time in the 1930s, treks from Paris to the provincial Normandy estate of the bourgeois well-to-do Monteil family and becomes the catalyst for their sexual and social perversions. Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) is the wealthy perverted elderly widowed father of the boss of the house, Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne). He’s a somewhat harmless sort (at one point he admires a butterfly and then shoots it) who likes to call all the chambermaids Marie and touch their calves and has a boot-fetish–he gets off when Célestine tries on an old-fashioned high-button pair of boots he keeps in the closet and struts across the room. He will die later in his room while clutching the boots. Madame Monteil is a frigid and bitchy fusspot over her museum-like furnishings and spends most of her time in her room conducting mysterious chemical experiments; she controls the purse strings in her family while keeping her wastrel hubby, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), in line. He spends his time either hunting or chasing after the women servants, many of whom he has made pregnant. Joseph (Georges Géret) has been for the last 15 years the gamekeeper and handyman, and the brutish man, a stool-pigeon who tells the mistress of the house about the private activities of the other servants, is part of a growing French fascist movement expressing hatred against foreigners, Jews and liberals. There’s also a long-standing feud between Monsieur Monteil and his petit bourgeois hateful former army officer neighbor Captain Mauger (Daniel Ivernel), who is sleeping with his servant Rose (Gilberte Géniat) and busy throwing trash into Monteil’s yard to get him peeved.

Things pick up in intensity when a servant’s cute little girl, Claire (Dominique Sauvage), is found raped and murdered in the Raillon Forest on the same day Monsieur Rabour died in a fetish frenzy. Célestine felt a special kinship for the child because she was so trusting, sweet and innocent, and suspects the killer is the detestable Joseph. The police show no fervor in getting the killer since she’s of the poor class, but arrest Joseph on the proof that Célestine supplies them with after she gives up her body to court Joseph to nail him to the crime. But they later release him when the evidence is viewed as insubstantial. It ends with Célestine cynically giving in to the decadent times and marrying the unattractive, bigoted, repulsive and much her senior Captain Mauger for the money and moves up the ladder from maid to mistress of the house while Joseph goes to Cherbourg to open a café to fulfill his petit bourgeois aims and while attending a fascist rally yells out the name of a fascist leader whose name happens to be that of the French police chief who previously censored Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

Moreau gives a marvelously restrained performance as someone who can be cruel and not likable, but not someone you can blame for how she acts. Her conniving personality goes well with the ironical and caustic mood Buñuel sets. It shows the glamorous and talented actress in a different light than how she’s usually pictured, and she comes through with one of her best performances ever.

REVIEWED ON 7/28/2006 GRADE: A   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/