Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Diary of a Chambermaid: Criterion (1964)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision

This wicked adaptation of the Octave Mirbeau novel is classic Luis Bunuel. Jeanne Moreau is Celestine, a beautiful Parisian domestic who, upon arrival at her new job at an estate in provincial 1930s France, entrenches herself in sexual hypocrisy and scandal with Bunuel regular Michel Piccoli as her philandering employer. Filmed in luxurious black-and-white Franscope, Diary Of A Chambermaid is a raw-edged tangle of fetishism and murder -- and a scathing look at the burgeoning French fascism of the era.

Director: Luis Bunuel
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Georges Geret, Daniel Ivernel, Francoise Lugagne, Muni, Jean Ozenne, Michel Piccoli
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; Audio French Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 32 chapters; Not Rated; 98 min.; $29.95; street date 6/05/01.
Supplements: Video Interview With Screenwriter and Longtime Buńuel Collaborator Jean-Claude Carričre; Transcript of a late 1970s Interview With Director Luis Buńuel; Original Theatrical Trailer; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/C-/C

As I noted in my review of Big Deal On Madonna Street, I’d enjoyed my recent encounters with older foreign films that had been unknown to me. Both 1958’s Madonna Street and 1955’s Rififi were quite well-made and enjoyable, and I was happy to watch them. Though I’ve never been big on foreign fare, I had high hopes that this improbable string of winners would continue.

Then I took in 1964’s offering by Luis Buńuel, Diary of a Chambermaid. Woof! While not a bad film, really, I thought it was dull and spiritless, and little about it seemed compelling to me.

If you read the plot synopsis on the DVD’s case, Diary sounds quite interesting. The blurb states that “Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), a beautiful Parisian domestic who, upon arrival at her new job at an estate in provincial 1930s France, entrenches herself in sexual hypocrisy and scandal with her philandering employer (Buńuel regular Michel Piccoli). Filmed in luxurious black-and-white Franscope, Diary of a Chambermaid is a raw-edged tangle of fetishism and murder - and a scathing look at the burgeoning fascism of the era.”

Um, okay. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the result to be quite as steamy and exciting as those notes made it sound. I can’t blame my lack of interest in Diary on overenthusiastic text, though; I didn’t read the synopsis until after I’d watched the movie. I went into Diary with virtually no knowledge of the film’s topic, so I wasn’t swayed by any preconceptions of its story or action.

That’s good, because if I’d expected anything from it, I might have been even more disappointed. The above-quoted blurb neatly summarizes the plot but it conveys a much more electric atmosphere than I actually saw onscreen. While it accurately tells us what will happen, the text makes it all sound much more exciting than it actually was.

During Celestine’s stay at the Monteil abode, she indeed encounters some apparently-unsavory characters. First she deals with the lady of the house, Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne), a cold and nasty woman who apparently wants nothing to do with the physical desires of her husband. That would be Monsieur Monteil (Piccoli), the “philandering employer” of the synopsis. In addition, Madame’s father, Monsieur Rabeur (Jean Ozenne) lives with the happy couple. He’s the apparent perv of the bunch, as he’s into some foot fetish related things.

We also have brutish fascist Joseph (Georges Géret) who also works for the Monteil family, and the neighbor is a crude dude as well. Captaine Mauger (Daniel Ivernet) maintains a position of respect in the community, but he loves to irritate his neighbors; he often dumps trash in the yard of the Monteils, and he derives pleasure from Monsieur Monteil’s aggravation.

About midway through the movie, this semi-comic menagerie takes a more serious turn when a young girl named Claire (Dominique Sauvage-Dandieux) is murdered in the forest. Although no obvious leads exist, Celestine feels that Joseph committed the crime, and she gets closer to him to pursue her mini-investigation.

It’s a very modest pursuit, really, as Celestine remains so aloof and distant throughout the film that it never looks like she’s that interested in solving the crime. For the most part, she comes across as more concerned with her own welfare. Celestine wants to move up in the world and have her own chambermaid some day, and she apparently intends to use whatever weapons she may have at her disposal to do this.

While all of this may sound fairly provocative, I found the execution to be rather drab and flat. Although I respect the attempts by some European filmmakers to create less theatrical works - a similar vein appeared during Antonioni’s L’Avventura - I think they often went too far in the opposite direction. Diary offers a lot of potentially compelling elements, but as shown in this movie, they fell fairly flat and did little to interest me.

My main problem with Diary stemmed from its banal appearance. I guess we’re supposed to feel that the various characters are rather unusual and perverse, and this is all an attempt to demonstrate the secret vices that hide behind bourgeoisie doors. Unfortunately, none of these people seem all that odd to me. No, they aren’t perfectly normal, and I’m sure they came across as even more eccentric back in the mid Sixties.

However, they lack the wicked overtones we might expect. With his fetishes, Monsieur Rabeur should be the sickest seeming of the bunch, but he really looks like nothing more than a somewhat sad and lonely old man; his fixations don’t seem to be rude or offensive in any way, and his “molestation” of Celestine couldn’t be less threatening. As for Monsieur Monteil, he’s clearly out to get some nookie, but it’s hard to blame him since his wife refuses to have any physical interaction with him. I don’t condone lecherous behavior, but he’s a pretty tame womanizer, and his problematic home life clearly contributes to his actions. Hey, he’s French, for God’s sake - since when did we criticize them for scamming babes?

Madame Monteil also comes across as more sympathetic than one might expect. Yeah, she’s an ice queen, but it appears that she has physical causes for her refusal to get it on with her husband. She doesn’t seem simply like a nasty woman who won’t be an active part of a marriage; I actually felt some empathy for her since it looks like a lot of her disinterest in sex relates to pain. Hey, if it hurt to do the nasty, who wouldn’t try to avoid it?

Of the entire group, only Joseph shows truly nasty elements. The Captaine is eccentric but generally harmless; he’s nothing more than the self-centered neighbor who likes to bug others. Joseph, on the other hand, comes across as the only really mean inhabitant of the group. We don’t see tremendous evidence of his potential cruelty, but he does appear to have a mean and violent side. Not that the film really explores this, as Joseph remains a fairly peripheral character through most of the feature; he only enters a somewhat prominent role toward the end as Celestine pretends to warm up to him.

Ultimately, I didn’t think that Diary was a bad film, but I felt it moved at a slow pace and it seemed generally pointless. The potential hypocrisy and perversity of the bourgeoisie is an interesting topic, but I thought that this flick’s exploration of it left a lot to be desired. Perhaps it’s more realistic to show a variety of mildly-dysfunctional characters, but that doesn’t make for a very compelling piece of work.

As I watched Diary of a Chambermaid, I felt as though I was supposed to be bothered by the characters’ behaviors, but as a whole, their actions seemed to be fairly unremarkable. The only strong role was that of Joseph, but even he didn’t get much to do; the majority of his alleged nastiness took place off screen and was left to the imagination. I don’t fault Diary for its vague and inconclusive nature; actually, I appreciate movies that don’t hit us over the head with their ideas. However, Diary simply lacked much of interest to watch and it left me cold.

The DVD:

Diary of a Chambermaid appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not without a few small concerns, for the most part I thought this film looked absolutely terrific, especially given its age.

Sharpness always appeared crisp and concise. Even during wide shots I saw no signs of softness or fuzziness, as the movie consistently looked accurate and well-defined. This came without any added concerns, as the picture seemed to be free of moiré effects or jagged edges.

The film also lacked a high level of print flaws. To be certain, some defects were on display. I saw light grain at times, and occasional examples of white speckles cropped up throughout the film. A smidgen of dirt could be seen at the top of the frame during a couple of shots, but this appeared to be a problem related to the original negative; the mark remained onscreen until the camera changed, which made me believe that the defect was attached to the shot from the beginning. Despite these small concerns, I thought that Diary usually looked quite clean for such an old film.

The movie presented a terrific black and white image. Black levels appeared to be nicely deep and rich at all times, and contrast seemed excellent. A few daytime shots were slightly too bright, but these were not a real problem, and for the most part, the image supplied a wonderfully silver impression. Shadow detail was consistently clear and appropriately opaque. Low-light sequences seemed easy to view but didn’t come across as excessively bright. Ultimately, Diary provided a very strong visual experience.

Much less satisfying was the monaural soundtrack of Diary. As a whole, this was a rather quiet affair. The movie featured no music at all, so the only elements related to speech and effects. The latter played a very minor role in the film, as they usually stayed in the background. A few louder elements appeared - such as a gunshot here or there - but for the most part, effects were limited to general ambience. They seemed somewhat thin and flat, but they were acceptably clear and accurate throughout the film. I also heard a minor hum in the background through much of the movie.

Since dialogue was the major element of the audio track, I’d like to be able to report that it sounded good. Unfortunately, speech consistently appeared harsh and sibilant. It’s somewhat difficult for me to judge intelligibility since I don’t speak French, but while I’d guess that the words remained acceptably understandable, the quality of the lines was quite poor. The majority of the speech appeared shrill and grating. I waffled between a “C-“ and a “D+” rating for the audio and went with the higher grade simply out of deference for the age of the material. However, I thought the soundtrack seemed to be fairly poor.

Diary tosses in a few extras, the most significant of which is an 18 minute and 55 second video interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carričre. Recorded in 2000, this piece touches on some general observations about Carričre’s working relationship with Buńuel and additional specifics about the creation of Diary. Although I wasn’t fascinated by this piece, I thought it provided a fairly compelling look at the man’s work as it let me in on a little background for Diary. Obviously Buńuel fans will be more interested in the program, but I thought it was still a decent viewing for those of us who are fairly indifferent to his films.

The video interview also provides a text biography of Carričre. Actually, this piece was more of an annotated filmography, as it didn’t include a wealth of information about the writer above and beyond the movies on which he worked. In addition to the original theatrical trailer for Diary - which was fairly interesting due to its interview-style narration from actress Jeanne Moreau - we get two text offerings in the DVD’s booklet. One of these comes from a late Seventies interview with Buńuel and it was a pretty interesting read. Despite my lack of intimate knowledge of the director’s work, I still found this discussion to be compelling, especially when he actively disavows intentional symbolism in his films.

I didn’t care for the second text. By film critic Michael Atkinson, that piece talks about the writer’s affection for the movies of Buńuel, but it does so in a rather pretentious and condescending manner. I especially took offense at Atkinson’s haughty declaration that Buńuel’s retirement from film after 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire was well-timed since it coincided with the era in which “blockbusters began to wreck the popular market and turn moviegoing into an experience of childish spinal emergency”. That’s the kind of holier-than-thou attitude that turns off many folks who would otherwise be open to less mainstream fare, and Atkinson’s nasty tone made it difficult for me to seriously regard his statements.

Not that he would be likely to change my mind about Diary of a Chambermaid. While not without potential, I thought the film was a fairly bland and uninvolving look at a bunch of supposedly severely dysfunctional people. Unfortunately, they really didn’t seem to be all that unusual, and the result is a rather plodding and uninteresting flick. The DVD provided an absolutely stellar visual experience, but sound was less satisfying, and the complement of extras was modest. Ultimately, fans of Buńuel’s films will likely be delighted with the DVD of Diary, as it looks terrific. As for others who aren’t acquainted with the director’s work, I can’t steer them toward the movie because I thought it was a bit of a dud. If this sort of slow drama interests you, Diary may merit a rental, but as a whole, the film did little for me.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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