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With: Jean Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret, Daniel Ivernel, Francoise Lugagne, Jean Ozenne
Written by: Luis Buñuel, Jean-Claude Carrière
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 03/04/1964

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

French Stressing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on the dozen or so films I've seen of his, I've come to the conclusion that Luis Bunuel is the greatest non-English language film director of all time. That said, I walked into the screening of the newly restored Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), which I had never before seen, with supreme confidence.

When the film ended, however, I was baffled. Confused. Disappointed. Bunuel usually disregards such trifles as conventional storytelling in order to satisfy his own whims. But here the story, co-scripted by Jean-Claude Carriere and based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau, seems constricted by the pages of the novel. It doesn't sing or breathe or roam free like Bunuel's great movies do.

Jeanne Moreau, fresh from starring in French New Wave classics like Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (a.k.a. Frantic) (1958) and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1961), portrays a Paris maid employed in a country home. As usual in Bunuel's films, the Bourgeoisie are shown as buffoons, blowhards, and repressed materialists. The man of the house (Michel Piccoli) is an idiot with a reputation for seducing and impregnating the help. But who can blame him when his wife (Francoise Lugagne) prefers doddering over her many lovely possessions to sleeping with him. The woman's father (Jean Ozenne) provides the only link to the Bunuel we know and love; he has a foot fetish and makes Moreau walk around with high-heeled boots.

Among the other servants are two older maids and a gruff handyman (Georges Geret) who hangs French Army banners in his room. When the little girl of the house is raped and killed in the woods near the house, Moreau suspects the handyman of the crime.

Her only motivation, it seems, is to get revenge for this act and to get ahead in the world. To this end, she seduces the handyman-going so far as to lie to him, promising marriage-to get him to confess. In the end, she marries an older Army veteran (Daniel Ivernel) who lives next door. But her coldness clouds these motivations and makes her movements seem mechanical.

Part of the problem is that the great Jean Renoir also made a movie of this story in Hollywood in 1946. In an interview at the time, Bunuel insisted that he had not seen Renoir's version, but its very existence had to put something of a clamp hold on the new production. The film was also a second choice for Bunuel, whose Tristana had been turned down (but would be filmed six years later). Interestingly, Diary of a Chambermaid is also Bunuel's only use of 'Scope, and also featured an unsettling experiment in which he used no musical score. These elements combined make the film seem less and less a product of the great Bunuel and more and more like an imitator.

It pains me to say all this, as I want to see all of Bunuel's work restored and shown on the big screen, and I don't want encourage anyone to put on the brakes. The wonderful Rialto Pictures, who released Bunuel's masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) last summer, reportedly have three more restored Bunuels ready to go: The Milky Way (1969), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Those are wonderful films, but instead of Diary of a Chambermaid, I wish I could have seen restored titles like Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, and L'Age D'Or, which are in far greater need of attention.

In the meantime, Diary of a Chambermaid seems to please viewers who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with more acerbic Bunuel, so perhaps it's a good starting place for them. And veterans may want to see the film to complete their Bunuel oeuvre. But I'll be holding my breath for more potent movies.

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