Saturday, April 30, 2016

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Film: Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)
Stars: Jeanne Moreau, Georges Geret, Daniel Ivernel, Francoise Lugagne
Director: Luis Bunuel
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

On occasion I get a truly random movie in my mailbox from Netflix (yes, I am one of those people that still gets DVD's delivered to their house-I am a Netflix subscriber for the movies and the assortment on streaming is kind of pitiful in that regard) that I don't remember adding to the queue.  Occasionally, based on articles or critics I like or just random suggestions from strangers I end up adding a film to my queue and eventually it bubbles up, and since I watch every film that makes it to my house (no point in sending back something unseen), I watch some films I don't remember wanting to see.  Thus was the case with Luis Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, a provocative film from 1964 starring Jeanne Moreau.

(Spoilers Ahead) This was actually, and as a cinephile I'm ashamed to admit this, the first Bunuel movie I had ever seen, something I didn't realize until I just started writing this review.  As a result, considering how many films of his I plan to see (his presence in the OVP, Cannes Film Festival, and Sight & Sound poll are all extraordinarily robust) I'm glad to say that I enjoyed it.  The film tells the tale of Celestine (Moreau), a woman who takes on a job as a maid in a secluded country estate.  The film focuses primarily on the interactions Celestine has with the wealthier upper class, some of whom are put off by her airs of sophistication (she's from Paris, and wants you to know it) while others are driven mad by her beauty and air of indifference.  She is forced, in several uncomfortable scenes, to essentially role-play a fantasy with her employer, fight off the advances of his son-in-law (who has a penchant for getting women pregnant), and even the chauffeur rebuffs her but is constantly trying to sleep with her.

The film, however, has more meaning than just to watch Jeanne Moreau fight off the advances of men. Halfway through the film, there is a murder of a young girl, penniless but whom Celestine has grown an attachment.  Because of her station the police have little interest in pursuing the murderer, so Celestine, convinced that the chauffeur Joseph (Geret) is the killer, actively uses her sexuality against him in hopes of trying to incriminate him in the murder, but the film ends with no resolution on this front, and much like Cabaret, we see in the final scenes a shift to a different ending that has been building throughout the film, in some ways under the audiences attention: that of a right-wing movement of anti-semitic, nationalist protesters who have started to draw power in France, mirroring in many ways the Nazis some years earlier (or if you want to go there, the National Front currently in France).

The film's power lies not only in the way that it keeps this political uprising largely ancillary until the end, when the powers-that-be are too great and we see the rise of Joseph as a major political player despite his seemingly inane rants being clucked at earlier in the picture, but also in the way that the plot is never entirely clear, which keeps you guessing and looking for clues (always a plus in a mystery).  The film's central character of Celestine, as played by Moreau, is impossible to decipher.  What are her motives in coming to this small town after seemingly enjoying her life in Paris?  What are her end goals and why does she fixate on Joseph over other potential suspects, like her eventual husband the ex-military official or the lecherous son-in-law who ends up essentially raping another of his employees late in the picture?  It's unclear, and it makes us realize that perhaps Celestine herself doesn't know what is happening in her own motives, and she's so used to the world going her way (even in the final scenes, we see her in control by using her beauty to demand obedience from the men around her) that she doesn't realize what to do when things aren't thrown at her?  It's a fascinating film, one left open-ended enough to discuss continuously, and still concrete enough that it feels complete, not like I'm missing a piece.  All-in-all, while it is hardly a landmark film it's still one that's endlessly intriguing and has me richly excited for future dates with Bunuel.

Those are my thoughts-how about yourself?  Are you a fan of Bunuel or Moreau, and what are your favorites of the film?  Who do you think killed the young girl Claire in this picture?  And which of this film's three iterations is your favorite?  Share in the comments!

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