(Side note before my actual review. Man, I’d started to forget what it was like to watch a foreign art house film. It’d been a while. Specifically, I think I haven’t watched one since 8 1/2 in the middle of May back in New York. And it’s been even longer since I’ve taken a journey into the strange and perverse mind of art house film icon Luis Buñuel with Viridiana in July of last year. Nothing like a good foreign film to remind you of how conventional even the most groundbreaking American films can seem)
Subtle political commentary is the most effective when a film is first released and the most incomprehensible commentary decades after the film’s release. Throw in a transatlantic cultural barrier and you have the makings of a movie whose actual message should be completely lost on future foreign generations (unless they do their homework on the film’s subject matter). Luis Buñuel’s (Belle de Jour) 1964 classic Diary of a Chambermaid seems destined to some day suffer that sad fate. However, thanks to my political science upbringing (and a healthy love of foreign history), I was able to peer into the subtle depths of his political satire of the growing French nationalism and neo-fascism of the 1960s to find a wonderfully understated film filled to the brim with Buñuel’s love of shocking and subversive sexuality.
When cultured and haute couture Parisian maid Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) moves to the countryside of 1930s Paris, she is quickly drawn into the political and sexual games of the Rabour/Monteil family. The family’s patriarch, the elderly Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) never sleeps with the maids but gets his sexual kicks by having them wear racy shoes and reading erotic literature to him. His daughter, Madame Monteil, is frigid and takes her frustrations out on the help by being an overly critical shrew. Her husband, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), has a voracious sexual appetite, but since his wife won’t sleep with him, he tries to sleep with all of the women (including the help) in sight. Throw in the family valet, Joseph (Georges Geret), a racist French nationalist, and walking the landmine known as the Rabour household is as much a full-time job for the beautiful Celestine as her actual maid duties. Although Celestine quickly decides that the Rabour household is too much for her to handle, the murder and rape of a 12 year old girl causes her to decide to stay as she attempts to suss out the mystery of who could commit such an atrocity.
While I’m not necessarily as consistently impressed with Luis Buñuel’s output as the rest of the cinema world (Viridiana was brilliant but Belle de Jour was relatively mediocre), if there’s one thing the man can do well, it’s cast sexually vivacious women as his leads, and much like Catherine Deneuve and Sylvia Pinel, Jeanne Moreau is a refreshing slice of sexual liberation. Sexual politics are a recurring theme of Buñuel’s work, and the dominant and playful Celestine is a classic example of a woman in charge of her sexuality without being overly whorish (is there a way to say that without me sounding incredibly sexist?), and her openly liberated lifestyle is often compared to the repressed but no less lustful lifestyle of her bourgeois benefactors. There’s an honesty present in Celestine’s character and Moreau’s performance lacking in the hidden desires of the less aware individuals around her.
Similar to Viridiana, the film’s black and white photography is simply stunning. Although Buñuel, a Spaniard who often worked in France, is not officially associated with the French New Wave, he was similarly ahead of the pack in terms of unorthodox cuts, handheld camera shots, and a willingness to regularly cross the borders of the sacred and profane. His juxtaposition of the enlightened eroticism of Celestine (and to a lesser extent the almost innocent fetishism of Monsieur Rabour) with the dark and violent desires of virtually everyone else around her creates for consistently startling image. Throw in the visual lushness of the film and it’s no wonder that Buñuel developed a reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting visual directors even accounting for the lack of some of his more overt surrealist imagery in The Diary of a Chambermaid (which is markedly straightforward by Buñuel standards).
Where the film really shines is the way that Buñuel eviscerates the rapidly growing fascism of the 1960s in France (which would come to be defined in the 1970s by men like Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party) by drawing the obvious parallels to pre-Vichy France. Nearly all of the men in the film are some form of fascist and are without fail racists (except for Monsieur Rabour who displays no real politics) and xenophobes. By showing their avarice and sexual perversions, Buñuel paints his political opponents (who had essentially ran him out of France for being a subversive during the era where the film takes place) as everything wrong with the French character and as warnings to future French generations. In the same vein to Viridiana however, the proletariat aren’t spared Buñuel’s critical eye any more than their potential oppressors as men like Joseph and his comrades are simply proles waiting for their opportunity to oppress those they don’t like.
Like the entirety of the art house niche, Diary of a Chambermaid isn’t going to be for everyone. Sexual satire and scathing political commentary don’t seem like they go hand in hand, and either one is enough to turn off vast swaths of the common audience. Yet, if you have an appetite for Buñuel’s mercurial wit and can place the film within the context of French history and Buñuel’s leftist politics (which let’s face it, one has to do their homework to discover), it’s a rewarding ride into one of foreign cinema’s most famous subversives. Ultimately, the film lacks the same bite as Viridiana (which remains one of the greatest religious satires I’ve ever seen) but it makes up for it with a stellar visual identity and unerring look at the hypocrisy of the far right.
Final Score: B+