Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Jean Renoir | The Diary of a Chambermaid

the upstarts
by Douglas Messerli

Burgess Meredith (screenplay, based on a fiction by Octave Mirbeau and a play by André Heuzé, André de Lorde and Thielly Nores), Jean Renoir (director) The Diary of a Chambermaid / 1946

 I must admit, the first time I saw this film, one of the great Jean Renoir’s from his American  period films—having already seen Luis Buñuel’s 1964 version—I was somewhat disappointed. While Buñuel accentuated the bizarre and dark aspects of Mirbeau’s eerie fiction, Renoir seemed to be trying the convert the perverse series of events that occur to an ambitious chambermaid, into a comedy. Indeed the casting of the light-hearted Paulette Goddard as Célestine, and the overt comedy actors Burgess Meredith (who had also written the screenplay) and Irene Ryan—both long-time American studio character actors—appeared to remove this work from any of the horror-like elements of the original. Renoir’s version, as most critics have agreed, looks forward to his later works, in which artifice and theatricality definitely dominated. Moreover, The Diary of a Chambermaid often has the look and feel of a studio product. The French, in particular, perceived this Renoir work, despite the master’s reputation, as the product of an exile who had rejected the very qualities, the perverse, satiric humor, that the French literary work had made famous.

       Seeing it again on Netflix just this morning, however, I begin to see the logic of Renoir’s direction, which parallels the determined, pre-feminist young Célestine with the wonderful comic posturings of Louis (Irene Ryan)—who cannot even walk across the room without the bearing the weight of her sense of worthlessness—and the hilarious volleys of the mad-man neighbor, Captain Mauger (Burgess Meredith), who not only hates the Lanlaires, literary throwing rocks at their glass houses (the gardening sheds), but is proud of his ability to eat anything and everything. Captain Lainaire’s (Reginald Owen) occasional rebellions against life at the Lainaire estate, moreover, adds to the fun. They are perfect foils for the young Célistine’s innocent, yet ambitious attempts to move up the social ladder while simultaneously remaining in her position as a seasoned chambermaid.

       Throughout much of the film, the villain appears to be Madame Lanlaire (the terrifying Judith Anderson, a few years after her own frightening portrayal of a serving woman in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.) For much of Renoir’s film, the light-hearted, flirtatious chambermaid brilliantly plays out her mobile aspirations against these exaggerated types.

       The other figure of her world, the valet Joseph (Francis Lederer), hovers in the background. To Louise and others Célestine jokes that he is an “undertaker,” but his slavish obedience to Madame Lanlaire, and his refusal to reveal himself, seems to render him basically ineffectual. If, like Célestine, we blanch a bit when his method of killing geese is described—he pokes them in the neck with a long needle to prevent their loss of blood—he remains, nonetheless, a valet, something both Célistine and Madame Lanlaire insist is permanent in his personality.

       The return home, however, of the long-absent son, Georges, changes everything, as suddenly the monstrous Madame attempts to warm up to her chambermaid, having purchased expensive Paris gowns for her, demanding that she change her hair to fit current Paris fashions. Célestine remodels herself in Madame’s image with both delight and a great deal of hesitation, not unlike Madeline’s acceptance of Scottie’s remaking of her image, a few years later, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; and at the same time, the film shifts, gradually transforming itself from a kind of gold-digger comedy into a story of almost surreal proportions.

       Despite all the of the enforced “acting,” Célestine proceeds to fall in love with Georges, even though his reaction seems inexplicably contradictory, as one moment he signals desire and responds to her gentle ministrations, and the next rejects the girl as an agent of his mother’s suffocating love. What the film reveals, but seldom speaks of, is that Georges is dying of tuberculosis; accordingly he loses energy in the very moments of great stimulation and fears, fearing, we later discover, that the young chambermaid cannot dare kiss him for fear of infection. That Renoir keeps this important aspect of their relationship covert helps to create a tension that the young, head over-heels-in-love girl, cannot explain. Does he love her or hate her? Does he, so manipulated by his overbearing mother, love women at all?

      Accordingly, Célestine is not only confused, but angered, as she is forced, in her aspirations for a way out and servitude and assurance of wealth, to look to the elderly neighbor or, in an even more frightening plot development, to accept the attentions of Joseph, who has secretly bought a bar in Cherbourg, where he intends to implant his new wife as a draw for soldiers and sailors. Like Célestine, he is attracted to the Lanlaire vault of silver and other treasures they bring out only once a year to celebrate against the French revolution. Joseph sees the chambermaid, in her plottings and desire for upward mobility, to be of same kind of person he is; and, in some respects, he is right. Except she knows, in her heart, that he is perceiving only the worst of her instead of good girl, despite her misconceived aspirations, she has always attempted to be.

      Unlike Buñuel’s version, where the valet is an ogre whom the chambermaid attempts to reveal to the society at large, Joseph is a clever manipulator, willing to fulfill her demands of real cash with by any means available. When he is overheard by Madame Lanlaire in his plots to steal their secret cache, he determines to find another source, through the robbery of their feisty neighbor, Captain Mauger, who has money hidden away in his house.

       After having locked up his housekeeper-mother-lover, Rose (Florence Bates), Mauger has run off to the small neighboring town to meet with Célestine, where he plots to marry her in Paris. Returning home for his money, he is met my Joseph and murdered. Renoir’s light-hearted work has suddenly turned sour, as everything that was light and playful has become a desperate fight to the death. When Joseph reveals that he has raised the mney, Célestine suddenly perceives, through the appearance of Rose, the criminal acts Joseph has committed, he, on his part, insisting that she is equally involved in the crime. The sudden shock of her unintentional entwinement in the murder tumbles Renoir’s film over a kind of cinematic cliff where what has been desire and flirtatiousness becomes deep metaphysical guilt, perhaps turning Renoir’s work, in some sense, into a more horrifying world than Buñuel’s. What follows takes the movie almost into the world of the absurd.

       A Lanlaire tradition is to have a late-night drink, in their anti-celebration of the Revolution, with the servants. The servants, including Célestine and Joseph, are toasted at the very moment when all emotions have come to the surface, including Georges', when he once again is made to face off with Célestine. Joseph announces that he is leaving—with Célestine, to which Georges responds with total disbelief. Can she really love this monstrous man? Demanding that she kiss Joseph to demonstrate her true love, Georges reveals, as she springs from the room, that she is not at all in love with Joseph, and chases after her.

       In one of the most disgusting pieces of human brokering, Joseph bickers with Madame Lanlaire over their cache of their silverware, plates, tureens, and even snuff boxes (studded with rubies and diamonds), in return for his promise to take Célestine away, in order to leave Georges in her arms. At first, we believe that she will chose the meaningless objects even over son, as she willingly gives up only a few tureens, a few tokens. He insists upon it all, she attempting to negotiate a split. He wins. The battle between the two is one of the most devastating satires of the linked interest of the wealthy and the aspirant upstarts ever committed to screen. Having won everything he has sought, Joseph now descends to the potting sheds, to where the real lovers, Georges and Célestine have recovered themselves. 

     Murder is clearly in the air, as Joseph beats Georges, Célestine intervening, again and again. Yet each time Georges, the natural weakling, rebounds to fight another bout. He loses, and his life is saved only by Célestine’s acceptance of Joseph’s demand to go along with him. Beating the horse, Joseph moves toward the station, but is stopped by the celebratory revolutionary crowds, who are, once again, happy to see Célestine among their midst. Taking advantage of the situation, the former chambermaid abandons the cart to offer up all their silver lucre to everyone at the event: she is no longer, clearly, interested in its financial worth or even its sentimental value. The crowd pushes forward, further impeding Joseph’s escape. When Georges shows up once more, a battle ensures, where Joseph attempts to kill, yet again, with his long needle induced into the necks of geese and Captain Mauger. The crowd finally captures the villain; we are not sure whether or not he is dead. In a strange sense, the whole scene has appeared to be related somewhat to the crowd reactions in the movie Frankenstein, having finally captured the monstrous beast.

      The final scene restores the film's comic viewpoint, as leaving the territory via train, Georges tells Célestine how to close her diary—with the wedding vow. Even if he has somewhat regained his health, however, we know he is doomed, given the intensity of his illness, to live only a few years. But then, it is clear, the worthy Célestine will inherit all that Lanlaire wealth.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2012

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