Luis Buñuel’s take on the Octave Mirbeau novel (previously adapted by Jean Renoir in 1946) is many things, most of them fairly successfully: a satire of bourgeois manners; a comedy about sexual repression; a puzzling whodunit; and an indictment of nationalist politics. Oh, and this being Buñuel, there are also ants.
At the center of Diary of a Chambermaid is Jeanne Moreau as Celestine, a Parisian maid who comes to work for a wealthy family in the country. Although there is a lot of talk about how clean things should be kept when she arrives, that is actually our first clue that the estate holds dirty secrets. Mme Monteil (Françoise Lugagne) obsesses over her decor and ignores her husband (Michel Piccoli). He releases his frustration by hunting and, well, pursuing chambermaids. Mme Monteil’s aging father (Jean Ozenne), meanwhile, has a shoe fetish; it turns out tea service to his room each night involves Celestine walking around in dirty boots.
None of this surprises Celestine, who seems to have expected that her employers were mostly hiring her for their personal pleasure. At times she plays along; at other times she teases them to the point of vexation. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that the chambermaid is really running the household. (The dark-eyed Moreau, also the engine of Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, brings the sting of vindictiveness to the part.)
Yet just when Diary of a Chambermaid seems to settle in as a black comedy—“Too much! Too much!” a priest exclaims when Mme Monteil says that her husband requires her affection twice a week—the movie turns grisly. There is a rape and murder, and while one suspect seems clear—the family’s gardener (Georges Géret), who gleefully reads news accounts of Jews being killed in Paris—the film later leads us to believe that someone else is actually guilty of the crime. Celestine is still the focus here, as she leads the investigation, yet Buñuel’s many threads never quite come together once the movie takes this jarring turn toward horror. As is often the case with Buñuel, his targets are many and his derision is fierce. Sometimes it can be hard for his movies to keep up.