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DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, Daniel Ivernel, Franšoise Lugagne, Jean Ozenne
Director:  Luis Bu˝uel
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrier, transcript of Bu˝uel interview, trailer
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

Film ***1/2

When you think about it, who knows more about us than the people who serve us?  The fašade we may put on in our public life melts carelessly away in front of people whom we don’t care what they think of us.  Or, put another way, would you rather read just another interview with Sylvester Stallone, or would you pass if you could have five minutes alone to chat with one of the housekeepers he forces to back out of rooms whenever he comes in?

Diary of a Chambermaid is an instantly intriguing title, and while there’s no diary in the film per se, there is a good long look at the French bourgeois of the 1930’s through the eyes of a woman who waits on them.  That woman is Celestine (Moreau), a pretty young chambermaid from Paris who finds herself employed in the country by the Monteil family.  The world we see through her is one of blossoming fascism, rampant fetishism, frustration, impotence and violence, and what makes the film so fascinating is Celestine’s moral ambiguity about it all.

Acclaimed filmmaker Luis Bu˝uel offers one of his most straightforward movies here, based on the popular novel by Octave Mirbeau from 1900.  It’s rare, in fact, for a Bu˝uel film not to contain any events on screen that couldn’t happen in real life, but his choice was the correct one.  The picture is still filled with his distinct touches, from his cynical humor to his fascinations with obsessive and morbid behaviors.

All the men in the picture respond to Celestine in a sexual way, from the aged grandfather Monsieur Rabour (Ozenne), who has a peculiar fetish for women in boots, to the perpetually frustrated younger master Monteil (Piccoli), whose wife (Lugagne) claims to be medically unable to satisfy his sexual needs.  A particularly funny scene is when she confesses this rather graphically to a priest, who at first is uncomfortable with, but later enjoys, the conversation.

The same is true of two male characters outside the household.  There is the strange gardener Joseph (Geret), whose inexplicable tendencies toward violence both repels and attracts Celestine, and the anti-Semitic neighbor Captain Mauger (Ivernel), who takes great delight in sawing off the Monteil’s tree branches or dumping trash in their yard.

The ambiguity of Celestine comes to its most curious fruition when she knows Joseph is guilty of a horrific rape and murder.   She hates him for it, even drawing the word “bastard” on a table with her finger, yet she willingly sleeps with him in order to trap him.

All of this leads to a rather unpredictable ending as to where Celestine ends up, as well as a rather rabid political rally that foreshadowed the sweeping scope of change about to occur across France in her near future.  Or, perhaps it shouldn’t be considered unpredictable, at least to Jeanne Moreau, who remarked that she believed the only thing her character really wanted was her own chambermaid.

Critics often refer to Diary as one of Bu˝uel’s lesser films, as though that were a derogatory statement.  Frankly, a lesser offering from Bu˝uel still towers over most other director’s prime offerings.  It’s perhaps more correct to consider Diary as a picture that doesn’t easily fit in with his entire body of work, and therefore perhaps stands out a little more as a curiosity.  It is no less a technical marvel, from his fluid camerawork and painstaking construction of his shots to his use of deep focus and angles to convey more and more information about his characters and the world they inhabit.

Simply put, Diary is a terrific film in its own right.  It doesn’t have to be considered one of Bu˝uel’s top five or ten to earn merit.  It’s a sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing look at a class of people through the eyes of a servant who sees more clearly and more fully into their behaviors, lifestyles, and practices than any other individual might hope to achieve.

Video ***

This is a very outstanding and very beautiful anamorphic offering from Criterion…one of the best overall black and white transfers I’ve seen.  The print, with its digital restoration, is miraculously free from nicks, scars or debris, and the detail of the imagery is exemplary, even in long or deep focus shots.  The range of grayscale is full and remarkable, from deep blacks to pristine whites and all the subtle shading in between…even darker scenes maintain a sharpness and visual integrity.  There is no grain, break up, or other evidences of compression to mar the image.  This is about as good as they come for older films on DVD.

Audio **

The single channel mono track is highly serviceable, if not spectacular.  The film is driven by dialogue, and serves its spoken words with clarity and integrity, but there is not much call for dynamic range or punch.  Some slight background noise is noticeable during the quieter scenes, but it isn’t distracting, and given the age of the picture, fairly acceptable.

Features **

The disc includes a trailer, a video interview with co-writer Jean-Claude Carrier, and a transcript of an interview with Luis Bu˝uel in the liner notes.

Summary:

Diary of a Chambermaid may not rank amongst Luis Bu˝uel’s top works, but it is still a remarkably conceived and constructed film nonetheless that will intrigue and captivate lovers of good cinema for an hour and a half.   With this top quality transfer from Criterion, fans will definitely want to place this disc alongside The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in their library.