Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid is the second major screen adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel of the same name. In 1946, during his brief sojourn in Hollywood, Jean Renoir made a largely unheralded American version starring Paulette Goddard. With a light, humanist touch, Renoir explored the ambitious chambermaid who uses her beauty and sex appeal to raise her social status. Much in the same way he explored class issues in The Rules of the Game (1939), Renoir used our shared passions and fears, regardless of social status, to explore political and economic inequalities. While far from his greatest work, the film still has political power largely thanks to the playful impishness of Goddard’s presence.
In Buñuel’s 1964 adaptation, humanism is usurped by surrealism, with fetishism commanding the comic and political trajectory. Similarly united by our shared flaws as a species, Buñuel exposes our Freudian perversions as evasive tools to hide our true hungers. Far from naive, but perhaps a little simple, Jeanne Moreau is Buñuel’s Chambermaid, Celestine. A sex comedy rooted in inequality, Buñuel trades in traditional ideas about power dynamics for his own twisted take on the absurdity of desire.
Jeanne Moreau is a commanding presence within the film, though even as an outsider in the world of her new patrons, the Monteils, she herself is not exempt from false assumptions and deep perversions. Innocence always plays an ironic role within the work of Buñuel, and Celestine is innocent only in that she is poor, as her hunger for riches and quickness to judgement place her squarely in the world of sin. Often central to Buñuel’s work, sinfulness represents his own contempt for organized religion, in particular Catholicism, and leads him to exploit the ideology of sin as an excuse for decadence and laughter. Sin is never quite what it seems and obscures the true crimes of human nature as they relate to wider, institutional injustices that exploit those who were not blessed with the “right” birth. Using exaggeration and displacement, Buñuel presents a world that is so neatly governed by the rules of cause and effect that it reveals the injurious manipulation of religious narratives, in particular how they are used to control those who are not in a position of privilege.
Celestine is a difficult role in that it relies on a careful balance between sex appeal and misplaced indignation. While Moreau’s Celestine uses her sex as a means to raise her social place early in the film, her priorities seemingly shift as she uses her body in order to expose a murderer and rapist (or so she believes). The power of superficial appearances becomes an oppressive force, which both disrupts the social order while also affirming it. This is not quite the contradiction it seems but rather suggests that mobility within classes leads to neither happiness nor progress. As Celestine finds herself exactly where she wants to be, it is painfully obscure what exactly she has gained in her pale social victory.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.