Ostensibly, it seems quite easy to get a handle on ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’. The opening scenes set it up as an upstairs-downstairs satire on class distinctions and social hypocrisy. It also comes across, structurally and in terms of narrative, as one of Buñuel’s more ‘traditional’ offerings.
It’s a different story by the end, though. Exquisitely poised satire and a rigorous examination of sexual politics are bound up with a murder mystery and the machinations of a heroine as duplicitous and on-the-make as her monied employers, and played out against a backdrop of racism, social protest and the threat of revolution.
The title suggests a heady cocktail of secrets and the boudoir, but ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ – for all that Buñuel throws in some comedy in the form of an old lecher with a shoe fetish – is a dark, sober, reflective work that localises its themes and concerns (a chateau and its grounds as a microcosm for France) before opening out into wider, more explicitly political mise-en-scene come the final reel.
The plot concerns Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), the chambermaid of the title, who takes up a position in at a chateau owned by Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) and ruled over with frigid discipline by his daughter Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), who controls the purse strings, lacerates the staff with her sharp tongue and turns a not-quite blind eye to the (attempted) philanderings of her husband (Michel Piccoli).
Celestine tows the line to Madame Monteil, keeps Monsieur Monteil on the hop without actually letting him get his way, indulges Monsieur Rabour to a certain (non-sexual) degree, and quietly sets out to better herself. Initially clashing with anti-semitic groundsman Joseph (Georges Geret), who may or may not be responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, Celestine even uses his attentions to further her schemes.
Full disclosure: I watched ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ for the first time yesterday and lacking any great understanding of the specific political references, I feel I need to go off and do some background reading, fill in the blanks, then reapproach the film. I’m probably doing neither the film or myself any favours by attempting to write about it just yet.
Most of the titles I’ve written about in this Buñuel mini-season are old favourites. A couple – ‘The Young’, ‘Tristana’ – I’ve come to cold but formed an opinion of straightaway. ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is something I’ll come back to on the blog maybe a few months or a year or two down the line; something I need to engage with a little more deeply; dig away at a little more. I’m convinced that the last scene in particular is freighted with implications: I need to get under the film’s skin. It’s already started to get under mine.