Diary of a Chambermaid, though not one of Buñuel’s more incisive films, presents an interesting world where men and women are from different species. The film has distinct high and low moments, but the Criterion quality is evident throughout.
Jeanne Moreau plays Celestine, a Parisian maid who goes to work for a wealthy family out in the countryside. She’s a straightforward working girl who’s used to the quirks and condescension of Buñuel’s upper class.
Her new madame (Francoise Luvagne) is a snobbish employer, showing Celestine all the valuable knickknacks, admonishing her to take extra care because of their great (although not apparent) value. The master is unfulfilled because his wife says it hurts to make love, so he spends his time hunting in a sort of Freudian compensation.
The madame’s father Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) also lives in the house, and he likes to be babied — he has Celestine deliver his tea at just the right moment and he likes to have her read to him. But he especially likes her to wear a certain kind of high-heeled patent leather boots. He’s harmless enough and Celestine takes his fetishistic fawnings with the patience and forbearance of a nursing pig.
Josef (Georges Géret), the groundskeeper and chauffeur, is blue-collar macho. He’s been working at this house for fifteen years, which gives him a petty sense of power over the other servants. He’s a bit of a bully, too. For example, he prefers to let the goose suffer a little before he kills it for dinner.
Once the characters are introduced, the film changes course. Rabour dies on the same day as an orphan girl, and the movie almost becomes a whodunit. Ironically, when this plot kicks in, the movie starts to get, frankly, boring. The film finally ends with an abrupt cap to each of the film’s stories.
In the film’s theatrical trailer, Jeanne Moreau responds to questions about the movie. She sounds as confused by its sharp turns as I was. “Is it a drama? Yes and no. Is it a mystery? Yes and no. Is it comic? Yes and no.” Her own ambiguity about the film is reassuring to those of us who aren’t quite sure what Buñuel was trying to do.
I have liked some of Buñuel’s previous efforts, and what I have liked the best is his surreal humor. In The Exterminating Angel, the characters are all trapped inexplicably in a house. In one of his early avant garde films, Land Without Bread, Buñuel makes a documentary that outright lies to you. But behind the humor, there is always a sociopolitical statement that makes his films worth watching more than once.
But some of his later dramas (including this one) don’t fit neatly into any category (as writer Jean-Claude Carrière points out in a supplemental interview). These later films are less funny and somehow, less satisfying. You might compare Buñuel’s career to that of Andy Kaufman (as depicted in Man on the Moon). For both men, their early careers were marked by funny outrageousness. But both men fought hard not to repeat themselves, coming eventually to the point where their humor and appeal got more and more obscure.
On the whole, the movie wasn’t as interesting or funny or even as politically riling as many of Buñuel’s other films. In truth, Chambermaid was a little boring. Maybe a lecture from a film professor would have helped explain why Chambermaid, out of the entire Buñuel library, was chosen for restoration and the Criterion treatment.
Picture and Sound
The Criterion DVD presents the film in a gorgeous, clean, rich black and white. Chambermaid is presented in its original widescreen format. (This is the supposedly the only film Buñuel shot in the 2.35 aspect ratio.) The detail of the ornately furnished house and the full, leafy garden is dense and clean. On the day I watched Diary of a Chambermaid, I had been looking at HDTVs, and I was impressed with how good this disc looked on my own analog TV. It goes to show that the source material plays a huge part in picture quality.
The treatment of the film was excellent, with a crisp, clean, dirt-free transfer struck from a 35mm fine-grain master positive made from the original negative. The subtitles are presented in the bar below the picture, so they don’t cover anything up. The detail within the picture is striking, every scene having some density and complexity, like the decorated interiors of the mansion or the leafy fall garden.
The sound was adequate but unimpressive, though not through any fault of Criterion. There is no music in Diary of a Chambermaid, so the soundtrack consists entirely of dialogue and sound effects. Also, the film is presented in Dolby Digital monaural, so although the sound is crisp and clean, it won’t show off your sound system.
Special DVD Features
The supplemental material is a little thin, but what it has is relevant. Most interesting is the interview with writer Jean-Claude Carrière, who sheds light on his working relationship with Buñuel. He tells us that after this film he collaborated with Buñuel on all of his French pictures. An on-screen text biography of Carrière fills in some of the missing details.
Unlike most DVDs, the Criterion edition of Diary of a Chambermaid comes with liner notes. It has a 12-page booklet that contains, among other information, an interview with Buñuel by two film critics. Buñuel’s evasive answers to the interviewers’ self-important questions are as interesting as the on-screen supplements.
Someone said there were other films in the Buñuel library that are more deserving of preservation and rerelease; and I would have to agree. Diary of a Chambermaid is not as pointed, as striking, or as funny as many of Buñuel’s other films. However, it might have been chosen because it’s reportedly his only CinemaScope (actually Franscope) picture.
If that’s the criterion that was used, then Criterion was the right company to produce the DVD. Chambermaid may not be the most memorable of Buñuel’s films, but it never looked better on your TV.