Who knows where a role playing fetish begins?
Perhaps the whole “Dress up like a French maid” thing began with the swells who took the grand tour of Europe and brought back a taste for servants in short black uniforms. It could have been inspired by the 1946 Renoir/Paulette Goddard version of a play based on the Octave Mirbeau novel, “The Diary of a Chambermaid.”
But a betting man would trace the Halloween costumes and Valentine’s Day, “Honey, put this on” obsession to the 1964 Luis Buñuel version of the tale, whose raciest scene featured the cunning and stunning Jeanne Moreau showing off the black lingerie and gartered stockings her character wore underneath that prim black and white uniform.
“Diary of a French Chambermaid” was remade a few years back with Léa Seydoux as its star. But Buñuel and Moreau gave us the most memorable version of the scandalous-for-its-day novel, about a maid from Paris who schemes to rise in the world via the many men who turn their attentions to her when she takes a job in the country.
This version makes its heroine’s machinations a political act, her cunning ruthless and righteous.
Set this time in France between the World Wars, Celestine is 32 when she comes to work for eccentric fussbudget “Old Man Rabour” (Jean Ozenne), his martinet daughter (Françoise Lugagne) and her always-hunting, sexually-frustrated husband Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli).
The brutish valet/handyman Joseph (Georges Géret) who picks Celestine up at the station sets the standard for the menfolk here. He notices her high heels and stockings and leaps to a contemptuous conclusion. Pretty much every man in the movie will do the same.
And when Celestine notes how “dreary the countryside always looks,” (in French with English subtitles), her analysis is spot on. “People probably don’t have much fun around here.”
Gossip is the cultural currency, badgering and imposing on the servants a privilege of wealth and back-biting and back-stabbing among the staff almost their only entertainment.
Gruff, prickly Mauger (Daniel Ivernel) is an old soldier/neighbor who picks fights with Monteil constantly, knowing that being a veteran the law will always favor him. Grumpy Joseph is an anti-Semite into all the right wing propaganda of the day, a goon given to rough handling of livestock and women, and he too figures the fact that he wore a uniform gives him a pass.
Monteil is the one Celestine is warned about. If Celestine’s “She counts the sugar cubes” mistress doesn’t fire the latest of her chambermaids, her husband “will knock you up.” Either way, she’s not long for “this dump,” she figures.
While here, she fields all manner of proposals — indecent and otherwise. Yet she fends off advances in a way that makes the men feel they have a shot. And she blithely yawns through the polite requests of her elderly employer, who insists on calling her “Marie,” as he has all his chambermaids.
“Marie, would you mind if I touched your calf?”
But everything changes when a couple of deaths alter the dynamic of the house and Celestine’s suspicions about those in it.
Buñuel was never nicknamed “The Spanish Master of Suspense,” but he already had some experience in crime stories. He took his transgressive sexual explorations much further with the masterful “Belle du Jour,” which came later in the ’60s, so he was finding his footing in this sort of material with “Chambermaid.”
Here he keeps his camera close to Moreau so that we can see the wheels turning even if we can’t guess what this worldly Parisian is thinking or might get up to. There’s a murder, and we can’t tell if she’s ready to rat her favorite suspect out, or playing the angles to personal advantage.
Buñuel filmed in a time of reactionary French xenophobia — the early ’60s — and resets this story in an era when the French right wing thumped its chest over its ties to the military and hatred of “foreigners” and “Jews,” and openly envied the Germans, whose Nazi leadership shared their ideology.
That twist in the film resonates even today.
But the co-writer/director mishandles the plotting in ways that don’t build suspense and don’t explain
Celestine’s scheming and plotting. The chronology is clear, but some steps taking us from A-to-Z are missing.
“Diary of a Chambermaid” is still worth hunting down because it’s by one of the masters of cinema and still manages to intrigue, entertain and titillate thanks to Moreau’s poker-faced turn as a woman with a few years of serious sex appeal left, and determined to use it to better her station in life, come what may.
Rating: unrated, an off-camera rape and murder, sexuality, some profanity
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Georges Géret, Françoise Lugagne, Michel Piccoli, Jean Ozenne and Daniel Ivernel
Credits: Directed by Luis Buñuel, scripted by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau. A Rialto release streaming on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 1:36