Surrealist Sundays: Diary of a Chambermaid

photo credit: imdb

photo credit: imdb

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

dir. Luis Bunuel

starring: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret

People are not as they appear to Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), the new chambermaid of a wealthy household.  Bunuel’s film balances satire, comedy, and drama with skill.  The film warns to be skeptical of institutions.  After all, they are run by humans.

The film begins with Celestine arriving at her new job.  She’s from the city, Paris, and now working out in the country.  Her fur trimmed coat and tattered stockings mark her as an outsider within the household.  The servants’ clothes are ill-fitting and layered, whereas the family wears tailored, rich fabrics.  As a chambermaid, Celestine is able to move within the upper and lower classes with ease.  Her outsider status makes her unpredictable.  Celestine’s origins cause the household to question her morals.  The lady of the house, Mme. Monteil, warns Celestine to stay away from her husband.  That is easy for Celestine because M. Monteil is a coward.

The first illusion that is shattered for Celestine, is that the man runs the house.  Mme Monteil is feared by her servants, she bullies her husband, she controls the finances, and is rumored to be frigid.  She’s just following her priest’s advice to have sex less than once a week and to not enjoy it.   M. Monteil blows off steam by hunting and watching, staring at, Celestine as she works.  He feebly attempts to hit on her, but she brushes him off.  It’s hard to believe that he initiated any of the affairs, when he hides in his room whenever he’s in the house.

The second illusion shattered is that of the kindly, old man.  Mme Monteil’s father is sweet to Celestine.  He shows her his scrapbook and he asks her to read to him.  He also asks to stroke her legs while she reads, and for her to model his wide selection of women’s shoes.  Celestine obliges and because the dirty old man trope is played for comedy, it’s funny.  While, the upper class exploit the lower class and blame them for the consequences, the lower class imitates but wraps it in the flag of justice.

Joseph (Georges Geret) represents the politically minded lower class.  He is a man of the people, who excludes immigrants, women, and other races from his perfect society.  He publishes a reactionary newspaper, but because he is the house snitch, it’s okay.  In other words, he is a hypocrite.  Joseph’s patriotism works effectively as a mask for his dark nature.

foot stompAt first it’s cruel and small, he chokes the geese before killing them; then he choking Claire, a daughter of another maid, and forces her to stare into his eyes.  However, it plays as a strange, symbolic action, and not as threatening as it sounds.  Celestine sees through his talk.  Unfortunately, she isn’t able to stop him from molesting and killing Claire.  Joseph’s patriotism makes him an unlikely killer to the police.  Celestine’s mission of revenge is thwarted because no one believes her.

The film ends on a downbeat.  Celestine is married to a rich man, but still wishing for revenge. Joseph runs a bistro and is seen as a good citizen.  Image is everything.

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