Sexy, self-assured housemaid Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) arrives to work at a provincial high society home in 1930s France. She soon discovers her employers are a ripe collection of eccentrics. Ageing patriarch Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) is a foot fetishist who wastes no time in getting Celestine to slip on a pair of kinky leather boots. His frigid daughter (Françoise Lugagne) is more concerned with preserving her household ornaments than saving her marriage, driving her sexually-frustrated husband (Michel Piccoli) to keep chasing servant girls. Finally, there is Joseph (Georges Géret), the gamekeeper, a monstrous bully espousing hateful right wing views at every opportunity. Bored with her lot, Celestine heads home but is drawn back when a little girl (Dominique Sauvage) is raped and murdered in the woods. Celestine resolves to catch the killer, though not solely for the sake of justice.
Diary of a Chambermaid sparked the third - and arguably greatest - phase in the career of the great Luis Buñuel. As persuaded by producer Serge Silberman, Buñuel revised his original plan to shoot the film in Mexico with his Viridiana (1961) star Silvia Pinal and relocated to France where he went on to make some of his most celebrated masterpieces. Based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau, this was the second screen adaptation following Jean Renoir’s altogether more light-hearted 1946 version starring the underrated Paulette Goddard. Buñuel counted Mirbeau’s novel among his favourites as a young man, but made the bold decision to relocate the story from the nineteenth century to the Thirties and the dawn of Fascism around Europe. Within this context, Buñuel mounts what stands as the darkest, most despairing and claustrophobic of his many scathing assaults on the upper class. The humour is pitch black this time round and his trademark flourishes of surrealistic imagery are minimal yet more forceful in their symbolic intent. Our first unsettling glimpse of the murdered child, snails streaking a slimy trail across her bloodied legs, implies nature is absorbing a lifeless being to sustain its existence, foreshadowing the eventual fate of our heroine, Celestine.
Working with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who also has a significant acting role here), Buñuel diverts from Mirbeau’s novel in another significant way. The book was written in the first person, leaving us privy to Celestine’s thoughts. Here however, she remains an enigmatic presence with ambiguous motives, although her outrage at the child’s fate is genuine enough. Played to perfection by French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau, the whip-smart Celestine is shown in constant motion, able to move between worlds being in command of her own sexual allure. This is in stark contrast to the bourgeoisie whom Buñuel depicts as immobile, confined to their sterile environment and amusing themselves with petty pleasures. Yet Buñuel also envisions them as a vampiric strata of society whose ability to absorb and regenerate themselves from the lifeblood of the lower but livelier underclass is their great strength. Sparky, spirited Celestine proves just the tonic the staid household needs. Beneath her sweet smile lurks a canny intellect but her kind heart is counterbalanced by a survival instinct that in some way proves her undoing.
The film could have played along the lines of a traditional murder mystery or even a giallo, given Celestine’s unconventional approach to detective work, i.e. luring her chief suspect into bed to obtain evidence. However, Buñuel makes the murder secondary to his darkly humorous detours satirising French provincial life, its rigid social structures and sheer nastiness lurking beneath the genteel surface. In Joseph we have one of the most repellent characters in cinema: an outspoken fascist, racist, misogynist sexual deviant. Joseph is not of the bourgeoisie but is a product of an environment seemingly oblivious to a pernicious evil developing in its underbelly. An evil Buñuel shows has spread from the country into the city and eventually across the world in one of the most ominous finales in cinema.