December is Jeanne Moreau Month!

Diary of a Chambermaid (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1964)

Devilish, kinky, and relentlessly bleak, Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid is an unorthodox portrait of simmering tensions coming to a malevolent boil in pre-World War II France.  Shot in the icy beauty of black-and-white Cinemascope and set in the tomb-like chill of French provincial winter, the film opens on the arrival of a new chambermaid, Celestine, to the Monteil manor.  Played by cinema’s ultimate vrai femme Jeanne Moreau, whose alert eyes and down-turned lips betray a certain critical ambivalence in a seductively pleasant visage, Celestine is a chic Parisian transplant in the midst of impassive countryside estates and gauzy, rolling fog.

Inside the Monteil chateau, Celestine is confronted with an assortment of hushed depravity, which she meets with the quiet, acutely perceptive eye of a woman shrewdly versed in the world’s more perverse eccentricities.  Aging Monsieur Rabour invites Celestine into his study and quickly shifts from avuncular to lecherous as he fondles her slender calf and asks her to try on a pair of Victorian button-up boots.  His son-in-law, Monsieur Monteil (Buñuel regular Michel Piccoli), hopelessly uninterested in his wife, stalks around the house and grounds like a salivating tiger, alternately pawing and clawing at Celestine with ferocious lust.  Joseph, the ornery groundskeeper, snarls shamelessly and loudly about his desire to kill Jews.

In Diary of a Chambermaid, Buñuel displays his signature institutional pessimism and shows us an environment rife with moral disease.  Religious hypocrisy, repressed sexuality and a frenzied yet increasingly unified anti-Semitism all invade the film to create jolting, surprising mise-en-scene with sting.  While positioning the male characters in a predatory and tightening circle, Buñuel elegantly emphasizes the women in the film and their distinctly unpromising options.

Even once Celestine, in a move of thrilling agency, reveals a repulsive murderer among the residents of Monteil manor, and transforms from chambermaid into a role of more lofty status, she is still shackled to the double-edged tool of sex appeal that allows her to “improve” her prospects, and is still powerless to the injustice that pervades the film’s denouement.  As we are reminded by the most shocking, stomach-turning image in the film – that of a little girl’s lifeless legs protruding from a thicket, with snails inching along her shins – when evil is on the rise, it extends its slimy, parasitic form and destroys even the most innocent of lives.

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