The Way of a Man with a Maid
Ever since Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid/Le journal d’une femme de chambre was paired with L’Âge d’or at the New York Film Festival in 1964, opinion has been sharply divided. Some champion that version co-scripted by the director from Octave Mirbeau’s turn-of-the-century novel, while others prefer Jean Renoir’s 1946 take co-scripted with actor Burgess Meredith from the stage play of the novel. More in line with European black comedy-melodrama as done in a Hollywood studio, that Frenchman’s version is different in a few key plot elements from the Spaniard’s not subtle sardonic atmosphere and habitual criticism of Church and bourgeoisie.
Now shown as part of a Rialto Pictures series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Buñuel is not among the best of the ten features of his uniquely fruitful final fifteen years. That it is straightforward, black and white, without music and technically nothing to write home about, is no surprise, for from beginning to end he was always concerned more with what a film said than how it did so -- rumor had him disliking the actual process of shooting -- and thus worked quickly in directing barbs at the usual targets.
Action is significantly shifted to 1939, the victory year of fascism in Spain and an era of rightwing nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism -- “Scratch a Jew and you'll’’ find a Bolshevik” -- throughout France in and beyond the story’s Saint Aubin village.
Independent-minded at thirty-two, Jeanne Moreau’s Célestine arrives at that town as the new maid for “the Priory” château. Her Parisian dress and perfume do not sit well with the finicky and franc-conscious mistress (Françoise Lugagne) and draw adverse comment from surly gamekeeper-factotum Joseph (Georges Géret).
Various wits are credited with remarking that a man’s foibles are best known to his valet de chambre; so, too, is the new domestic -- and camera -- privy to the employers’ dirty laundry.
She is a hit with the menfolk, starting off the bat with the mistress’ father, M. Rabour (Jean Ozenne), too old to pose a problem with his fetish -- a common quirk among Buñeul figures -- in this case, having attractive maids parade around in the pairs of stylish boots he has stashed. She obliges him with humor and boredom, but Madame’s husband M. Monteil (Michel Piccoli) is more problematic, a sexual predator who has exhausted his cold prudish wife who in turn resents the hush money paid a previous servant he got pregnant. Very much her own mistress, Célestine sidesteps his blandishments, leading him to settle for Marianne (Muni), a slow, shy and pathetic servant.
So much for upper-middle-class morality.
Working-class Joseph is a different case, a France-for-Frenchmen right-winger who conspires with the local sexton (Bernard Musson) to cleanse the army and the country. Frank about the wants he keeps hidden from his employers, he, too, eyes the housemaid, more for pragmatic purposes than lust or love. An ex-army man still addressed as the Captain, neighbor M. Mauger (Daniel Ivernel) carries on a vendetta of spite against Madame and Monteil but will ultimately make up with them and dismiss his devoted Rose (Gilberte Géniat) to throw his military cap into the ring for Célestine.
For her part, she has already resigned and is at the train station when talk reaches her of the rape-murder of child Claire (Dominique Sauvage), the niece of one of the kitchen staff to whom the Parisian had been motherly. Correct in her supposition as to the culprit, she goes back to the job again, willing to surrender herself in bed and, if need be, in marriage, to incriminate the killer.
The outcome of her plan and of the film is dramatically and morally unsatisfactory. This is not unusual in Buñeul and, indeed, may be his bleak way of showing up society’s shortcomings. Second-tier compared to his masterworks, DoC is worth seeing because it is his. Besides, then the viewer can decide for him- or herself on the merits of the dénouement.
(Released by Rialto Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)