Cine-East Film Club Presents #37: 1964, Diary of A Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel)

by George_East on January 20, 2014

Celestine: ‘It’s strange how the country seems so sad,  I guess people don’t have much fun here’.

After a hiatus caused by the work that went into my top 50 album list, the weekend Cine-East Film Club is back, aiming to bring you a weekly guide to classic, cult and just down right interesting films from all periods, all parts of the world and all genres.   Some you’ll know, some you might not – I hope these presentations will give you cause to check out or revisit some of the films the Club features.

For the first film of 2014, it is time that the Cine-East Film Club brought you something directed by Spanish surrealist, Luis Bunuel. Bunuel is sadly more read about than seen.  I suspect most people have not seen anything more than the single scene in Un Chien Andolou in which the cut throat razor slices the eye ball in two.  It is one of the most famous shots in cinema, and will almost always get an outing in a documentary about film.  At a stretch some people have seen Belle De Jour, Bunuel’s fabulous attack on bourgeois morality, with Catherine Deneuve, playing a bored frigid housewife who becomes a prostitute.   In reality all of Bunuel’s films are worth checking out.  Many more will feature over the months and years.

Diary of A Chambermaid marked the beginning of the director’s final phase of films in which after three decades in Mexico, he returned to making films in Europe.   He arrived back into a thriving European art house scene in a period when the French New Wave had taken the film world by storm, Ingmar Bergman was at his peak and Italian directors like Visconti, Passolini, Antonioni and Fellini were reinventing the form and possibility of cinema.

With Diary of A Chambermaid Bunuel showed that he was capable of absorbing the latest currents in cinema while making a master piece that was distinctively his.  It was also Bunuel’s first collaboration with the brilliant screen-writer Jean Claude Carriere, who he would work with for the rest of his career.

It is a film set against the backdrop of the rise of fascism and anti-semitism in the early to mid 1930s and the run up to the attempted fascist coup in France of 6 February 1934.   It tells the story of Parisian chambermaid, Celestine, played by that darling of the French New Wave, Jeanne Moreau, who takes up a new position with an aristocratic family at their country chateau.

The family consists of the elderly patriarch, Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne), his daughter, Madame Monteil (Francois Lugagne) and her husband Monsiuer Monteil, played by the ever great Michel Piccoli.     None of them do anything productive.  This is the idle rich at its most idle.    They sit around the chateau playing backgammon or cards. Monsieur Monteil hunts and shoots.    Madame Monteil is constantly fretting about the servants breaking the ornaments.  At no point do we see any of them do anything even vaguely resembling gainful employment.

They live on income from their land and investments.  They have no need to toil or trade. Their lives are ones of trivial boredom.  They have little to do all day than to get into petty arguments with their neighbour, Captain Ivernel, who has taken to throwing rubbish over the wall which separates the properties for no other apparent reason than he is just as bored as they are.

This is a film then about class, but more importantly it is a film about class, with an added dose of Bunuel’s surrealist take on sex and repression. The bourgeois family are sexually dysfunctional.  Monsieur Rabour has a foot fetish.   Madame Monteil is frigid, though taking advice from her priest about how she might please her husband.  Monteil is chasing and sexually harassing  everything in a skirt.  The hint is Celestine’s predecessor had to leave the house because she was pregnant.

Upstairs is matched by an equally fucked up downstairs.  The groundskeeper, Joseph, is an active member of the fascist Action Francais who meets with his political sympathiser friend to read each other with delight news of trade unionists getting their heads kicked in or Jews getting killed across Europe.   The other servants, including Marianne (played by the wonderful and wonderfully odd Muni, who pretty much only worked for Bunuel), gossip and seek to avoid Monteil’s attentions.

The sexual repression of the family members is, in Bunuel’s mind, directly linked to the politically fucked up place that France and Europe are in.   Repressive and rigid class structures are reflected in the inability of anyone having a functional sexual relationship.

Bunuel portrays the casual cruelty of Monteil by having him shoot at close range some beautiful butterflies who are floating around a flower in the garden.  Bunuel wrong foots his audience by having the comically unsexy Monteil rebuffed by both his wife and to his great horror, Celestine herself, only then to have him, in his frustration rape Marianne (effectively exercising droit du seigneur some 150 years after the revolution had supposedly abolished it).  There is no comedy in the realities of this world.

But there is an even greater darkness – a young girl, Claire, will go missing, only to be found in the woods close to the chateau raped and murdered.   Celestine who had left the chateau to return to Paris following the death of Monsieur Rabour, will hear the news at the train station and return to try to help to discover who murdered Claire.

It is here that Bunuel wrong foots us again.  Although Diary of A Chambermaid with the death feels like it is switching to become a fairly standard whodunit with Monteil and Joseph as the prime suspects as child rapists and murderers, Bunuel uses the crime instead to emphasise just how rotten and twisted the class system and the political realities of the period were.

Celestine, is not coming to ride to the rescue, but rather sees her opportunity to socially climb herself, by using the events of the murder to gain the affections of the neighbouring aristocrat .   Joseph, who Celestine will frame for the murder (probably rightly), will end up, running a café in Cherbourg like he always wanted.  The case apparently dropped – perhaps because the police share his extreme right political associations?  The brilliantly powerful last scene in the film shows Joseph standing on the door of his café as an action francaise march goes past.  He starts a slogan and the march pick up on it.  The slogan calls for the reinstatement of a Parisian police chief suspected of being connected with the coup attempt.   The forces of the extreme right are growing.

Celestine then, the disruptive force from the city coming into this conservative world, turns out to want nothing more than to be part of it, just this time in the top social tier, rather than as a servant.  The inevitable consequence is that Celestine is now in a relationship devoid of sexual fulfilment.  She has become part of the class she used to serve and has been liberated from her poverty, but while those rigid divisions remain in society generally and while the truth remains repressed there will be no true liberation.

Moreau is superb as the impassive and calculating Celestine.   Even if you’ve seen the film many times her cynicism is still something to behold.

If you’ve not seen much or any Bunuel,  Diary of A Chambermaid is as good a place as any to start.  There is no other director like him.

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