Title: The Diary of a Chambermaid
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Burgess Meredith
based on the play of André Heuzé, André de Lorde and Thielly Norès
adapted from the novel by Octave Mirbeau
Music: Michel Michelet
Cinematography: Lucien N, Andriot
English Title: Diary of a Chambermaid
Original Title: Le journal d’une femme de chambre
Country: France, Italy
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Luis Buñuel
based on the novel by Octave Mireau
Cinematography: Roger Fellous
A double-bill of two films transmuting Octave Mirbeau’s source novel LE JOURNAL D’UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE onto the celluloid, made by two cinematic titans: Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel, 18 years apart.
Renoir’s version is made in 1946 during his Hollywood spell, starring Paulette Goddard as our heroine Celestine, a Parisian girl arrives in the rural Lanlaire mansion to work as the chambermaid in 1885, barely alighting from the train, Celestine has already been rebuffed by the haughty valet Joseph (an excellently surly Lederer), and confides to the also newly arrived scullery maid Louise (a mousy and dowdy Irene Ryan) that she will do whatever in her power to advancing her social position and firmly proclaims that love is absolutely off limits, and the film uses the literal diary-writing sequences as a recurrent motif to trace Celestine’s inner thoughts.
The objects of her tease are Captain Lanlaire (Owen), the patriarch who has relinquished his monetary sovereignty to his wife (Judith Anderson, emanating a tangy air of gentility and callousness); and Captain Mauger (a comical Burgess Meredith, who also pens the screenplay off his own bat), the Lanlaire’s goofy neighbor who has a florae-wolfing proclivity and is perennially at loggerheads with the former on grounds of the discrepancy in their political slants, both are caricatured as lecherous old geezers with the death of a pet squirrel prefiguring the less jaunty denouement.
In Renoir’s book, the story has a central belle-époque sickly romantic sophistication to sabotage Celestine’s materialistic pursuit, here her love interest is George (Hurd Hatfield), the infirm son of the Lanlaire family, a defeatist borne out of upper-crust comfort and has no self-assurance to hazard a courtship to the one he hankers after. Only when Joseph, a proletariat like Celestine, turns murderous and betrays his rapacious nature, and foists a hapless Celestine into going away with him, is George spurred into action, but he is physically no match of Joseph, only with the succor from the plebeian mob on the Bastille Day, Celestine is whisked out of harm’s way, the entire process is shrouded by a jocose and melodramatic state of exigency and Renoir makes ascertain that its impact is wholesome and wonderfully eye-pleasing.
In paralleled with Buñuel’s interpretation of the story, Renoir has his innate affinity towards the aristocracy (however ludicrous and enfeebled are those peopled) and its paraphernalia, the story is less lurid and occasionally gets off on a comedic bent through Goddard’s vibrant performance juggling between a social-climber and a damsel-in-distress.
The same adjective “comedic”, “vibrant” certainly doesn’t pertain to Buñuel’s version, here the time-line has been relocated to the mid-1930s, Celestine (played by Jeanne Moreau with toothsome reticence and ambivalence) more often than not, keeps her own counsel, we don’t even once see her writing on the titular diary, she works for Mr. and Mrs Monteil (Piccoli and Lugagne), who are childless but live with Madame’s father Mr. Rabour (Ozenne, decorous in his condescending aloofness), an aristo secretly revels in boots fetish in spite of his dotage. Here the bourgeois combo is composed of a frigid and niggardly wife, a sexed-up and henpecked husband (Mr. Piccoli makes for a particularly farcical womanizer, armed with the same pick-up line), a seemingly genteel but kinky father, and Captain Mauger (Ivernel), here is less cartoonish but no less uppity, objectionable and erratic; whereas Joseph (Géret), is a rightist, anti-Semitic groom whose perversion is to a great extent much more obscene (rape, mutilation and pedophilia are not for those fainted hearts).
Amongst those anathemas, Celestine must put on her poker face, or sometimes even a bored face to be pliant (she even acquiesces to be called as Marie which Goddard thinks better of in Renoir’s movie), she is apparently stand-offish but covertly rebellious, and when a heinous crime occurs (a Red Riding Hood tale garnished with snails), she instinctively decides to seek justice and tries insinuating her way into a confession from the suspect through her corporeal submission, only the perpetrator is not a dolt either, unlike Renoir’s Joseph, he knows what is at stakes and knows when to jettison his prey and start anew, that is a quite disturbing finale if one is not familiar with an ending where a murderer gets away with his grisly crime. But Buñuel cunningly precedes the ending with a close-up of a contemplating Celestine, after she finally earns her breakfast-in-bed privilege, it could suggest that what followed is derived from her fantasy, which can dodge the bullet if there must be.
Brandishing his implacable anti-bourgeoisie flag, Buñuel thoughtfully blunts his surrealistic abandon to give more room for dramaturgy and logical equilibrium, which commendably conjures up an astringent satire laying into the depravity and inhumanity of the privileged but also doesn’t mince words in asserting that it doesn’t live and die with them, original sin is immanent, one just cannot be too watchful.
Last but definitely not the least, R.I.P. the one and only Ms. Moreau, who just passed away at the age of 89, and in this film she is a formidable heroine, brave, sultry and immune to all the mushy sentiments, whose fierce, inscrutable look is more than a reflection of her temperaments, but a riveting affidavit of a bygone era’s defining feature.
referential points: Renoir’s THE RIVER (1951, 7.1/10), FRENCH CANCAN (1955, 7.0/10), ELENA AND HER MEN (1956, 5.2/10) and THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939, 8.4/10); Buñuel’s SUSANA (1951, 6.9/10), EL (1953, 7.6/10), THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962, 7.9/10) and THE MILKY WAY (1969, 6.3/10).