Monday, April 27, 2009

Film review: THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (Luis Buñuel, 1964)

"She's more than just a servant, she's a rarity among women" is noted of Jeanne Moreau's Céléstine, a Parisian maid who comes to work for the eccentric Normandy family conprising of Monsieur Rabour, his daughter Madame Monteil and her husband Monsieur Rabour. 

She soon discovers the traits of each family member, from Monsieur Rabour's predilection for women in boots (and seeing them walk in said boots), to Monsier Monteil's womanizing with the maids, resulting from his wife finding sex too painful, and thus not enjoying it.


I'm halfway through my Luis Buñuel marathon and so far, not one of his films haven't revolved around, or at least had as an integral factor of it, sex. Le journal d'une femme de chambre is no different. Adapted from Jean Renoir's 1946 version, Buñuel and long time writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière clearly have a great time writing the dialogue for this film. 

Monsieur Rabour, in trying to deny his feelings of attractions for Céléstine, reasons more himself, than his wife, "She's from Paris. Who knows what diseases she has?". Ironically, when he later throws himself at her, she gets out of sleeping him by dodging him and exclaiming "I've got symphilis!". It's this combination of crude sex jokes and laugh-out-loud visual comedy (including a clumsy priest trying to kick a door down) that really brings out the humour as well as sexual politics in 30s French society.


However, Le journal d'une femme de chambre isn't principally a comedy. It's rather difficult to pinpoint exactly what genre it is, for, half way through the film, after 45 or so minutes of amusing vignettes, things turn sour when, just after she has quit her job due to the master of the house dying, it is revealed that someone else has died - Little Claire, the girl that Céléstine grew to care for. And not only that, she was raped and murdered. 

Céléstine, suspecting her fellow servant Joseph, an unrefined and fascist so-and-so of being the perpetrator, regains her post and seduces him in an attempt to get a confession out of him. And, once again, we re-enter a world where, as with Belle de jour and That Obscure Object of Affection, women must rely on their "other gifts" to get through in life.

As Céléstine Jeanne Moreau is a revelation. She was 36 when the film was made and, despite her skin looking a bit craggy, she is still very beautiful, her brunette hair tidy and stylish and her wide eyes watching carefully as she enters the microcosm of the French bourgeoisie, taking everything in unflinchingly. She's a strong, brave lady who believes that the ends justifies the means and isn't afraid to stick up for herself, no matter what the class/gender/wealth of the person who challenges her, and Moreau embodies the brave, ahead of her time character of Céléstine perfectly. 

As is now standard of Mr. Buñuel's films, the women come out a lot better than the men do - the man on the house, out of frustation of "only" being able to shag his supposedly frigid wife twice a week, fooled about with one of his ex-maids, and as such, had to pay her off 1500 Francs once she's knocked up. 

Céléstine refuses to give it up quite as easily.


Four out of the eight Luis Buñuel DVDs watched, and I'm still yet to find a stinker. Le journal d'une femme de chambre is far, far away from being a stinker - it's a deliciously witty attack on Western society that is as post-modern as it gets, and centres around one of the sassiest and most intriguing women in cinema. An absolute must.