Thursday, April 12, 2012

Luis Buñuel | Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid)

two chambermaids

hunter, cobbler, schoolboy, rapist-racist
by Douglas Messerli
Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (adaptation and dialogue, based on a novel by Octave Mirbeau), Luis Buñuel (director) Le journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid) / 1964

Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau), a beautiful chambermaid, has traveled from Paris—we can only imagine the reasons for her leaving the city—to the country, where she will be serving the Monteil household in their chateau. For this well-dressed city girl, the country folk from the very beginning seem unfriendly and unsophisticated, the family servant, Joseph (Georges Géret) who has come to fetch her by phaeton hardly speaking a word to her, the wife (Françoise Lugagne) asking her impolite questions and mostly lecturing the new chambermaid about the preciousness of household objects. She is, we quickly perceive, a woman who only occasionally suffers her husband’s sexual demands. From the moment Céléstine meets Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli) we perceive him as a rather uncouth man, hunting down small animals and any female of the human species that might cross his path; he has, evidently, gotten the last chambermaid pregnant, forcing Madame Monteil to pay damages. Madame’s father (Jean Ozenne) is a genteel man who spends most of his time leafing through pornographic postcards, quickly enlisting Céléstine to read to him each evening while dressed in women’s boots of another era which he caresses, polishes, and repairs. The family’s neighbor, Captain Mauger (Daniel Ivernel) is a loud military man whose elderly servant shares his bed and dinner table; hating the Monteil family, he spends much of his time tossing garbage into their yard over the wall that separates their estates, acts which his live-in surrogate wife describes as those of an overgrown schoolboy. The loyal family retainer, Joseph, it turns out, is a rabid racist, spouting rightest and anti-Semetic rhetoric, writing (with the help of the local sexton) fascist texts. Céléstine, in short, has found herself immersed in a world of bourgeois fetishists and perverts, the usual subjects of Buñuel’s works.

      Much like the mysterious figure of Pasolini’s movie, Teorema, of four years later, however, the young chambermaid seems to offer each of these absurdly dreadful figures the perfect image of their desires. Despite breaking the cover of an expensive lamp shortly after her arrival, Céléstine even pleases the cow of a woman, Madame Monteil. Throughout, in fact, the new chambermaid is able to please the ridiculous figures of her new world with a slight smile, a sense of humor, and a willingness to play along. She even becomes a kind of mother-protector figure to the mysterious urchin, Claire, who wanders the local woods dressed in a kind of “Little Red Riding Hood” outfit, gathering up snails and berries to trade to the wealthy landowners for dinner.

     When the elderly father-in-law, however, is found dead in his bedroom, Céléstine determines to return to city life. At the station she hears of the rape and murder of Claire and becomes suddenly determined to return to the manor, suspecting Joseph, whom we know to be the perpetrator of the dreadful act.

     Her return, however, baffles everyone, including the audience who must now, for the first time, begin to suspect her motives. Particularly when she begins to express a romantic interest in the brute Joseph, we can only wonder why she is willing to go so far just for a sense of justice. Joseph is determined to open a café in the military town of Cherbourg, and wants Céléstine as a wife and sexual magnet to attract the military clientele. Her seductions, unfortunately, appear for to be for naught, as he refuses to admit his crime. In revenge she steals a small metal clip from the heel of the shoe, burying it near to where the girl was killed. Discovered by the police, the object seems to implicate him, and he is arrested. But upon his arrest, he proclaims that he was not wearing that pair of shoes on the day of Claire’s death, and he is, quite obviously freed, as we discover him in the last scene of the film in Cherbourg, shouting rightist slogans, “Down with the Republic! Death to the Jew! Long live Chiappe!—the Paris policeman who stopped Buñuel’s 1930 film L’Âge d’Or from being exhibited. So does Buñuel, it appears, get his revenge.

     In the penultimate scene, we witness Céléstine in bed with Captain Mauger, as her new husband serves her breakfast. So it becomes apparent this chambermaid has been equally willing to use her powers to get what she wants. But what she truly wants remains in doubt, as we witness her, sitting upon the bed, busily plotting her next move. We can only imagine what that move might be—perhaps a return to the Chateau Monteil with the ouster of the passive-aggressive Madame? Does she, like Buñuel simply seek revenge or is she after something larger?  In the following decade with the rise of Nazi rule and the Holocaust, supported by just such bourgeois folk and the blind eye of the Church, the world she served was completely overturned. And even a former chambermaid might inherit the new order. Buñuel’s most realistically presented film, accordingly, is as ambiguous as all of his others.

Los Angeles, March 11, 2012

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