MOVIE SHELF: COMPARING FILMS TO THEIR LITERARY COUNTERPARTS
LUIS BUÑUEL'S DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID
based on LE JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE by OCTAVE MIRBEAU
"There are caresses… and there are caresses."
As I mentioned earlier, Buñuel and Mirbeau have a strong spiritual resemblance; however Buñuel is a total original, so while his film ends up embracing Mirbeau's novel to the same degree Renoir's disregards it, his 1964 adaptation ends up being its own screwy entity that's not beholden to the book. There are loads of more or less superficial changes: a shift in the setting from Belle Epoque France to the 1930's, a compression of discrete episodes from the novel into a single story and an altered (if not exactly new) ending - none betray the novel in the way Renoir's film made such betrayal a routine, but most if not all of these changes stamp the film with Buñuel's personality. For example, the switch from the Belle Epoque serves two purposes. First, Buñuel romanticized his own youth during the time period in which the novel was set and didn't want to profane that era with his film. Second, it allowed him to portray the France in which he lived and made his reputation as an artist alongside the Surrealists in the 1930's - the final sequence even takes some shots at Prefect of Police Jean Chiappe, the Surrealists' bête noire who had banned Buñuel's L'age d'or.
Maybe more interestingly, Buñuel solves the problem of adapting a sprawling, episodic story into a coherent feature-length film by turning it into Viridiana. This is interesting not so much from the stand-point of further imprinting his personality upon the film, but because Buñuel rarely repeated himself. Compared to, say, the concept of nearly every film by Chabrol (an overtly deranged person teams up with a seemingly normal person who turns out to be even crazier) or Hitchcock (an everyman/woman gets caught in a web of intrigue beyond their comprehension), Buñuel almost never repeated story ideas or plot structures. A lot of beloved auteurs (again, think of Chabrol or Hitchcock or Bresson or Antonioni) are beloved for their repetitiveness, for the insistent singularity of their vision. But compare even two of Buñuel's later films that might seem similar like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, two extremely loosely plotted films that take strange turns and move in totally unpredictable directions, and you'll see how idiosyncratic each Buñuel film is: Charm's "dream within a dream" chinese box construction has a unity of characters that contrasts with the total narrative anarchy of Phantom's "exquisite corpse" style construction.*
The similarities between Viridiana and Diary are an artistic phenomenon that doesn't even occur in his more straightforward commercial Mexican phase, where he might be expected to have been more formulaic. Both films concern a passive young woman who arrives to take over the domestic duties of a provincial European estate. Roughly halfway through each story, an act of rape occurs (although "only in thought" in Viridiana if you believe Fernando Rey), the aging patriarch of the estate dies unexpectedly under grotesque circumstances and in response to these occurrences, the naif assumes an active role. The second half of each film concerns how the naif's noble intentions are sullied by debauchery and depravity.
After its completion in 1961, the Spanish-produced Viridiana had been banned by Franco at the behest of the Vatican and the only remaining prints had been buried on producer Gustavo Alatriste's farm to avoid their destruction. Despite the film winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it's not hard to imagine Buñuel figured its problems with censorship would ensure that it would never see the light of day - it didn't in Spain until 1977 - so why not steal its basic structure and concept and apply it to Mirbeau's difficult novel? The resemblance between the films is all the more striking for Diary being an adaptation and Buñuel having to toss out a narrative approach (Mirbeau's episodic, digressive structure) in favor of the one he just employed a couple years earlier. He even intended to cast Viridiana's star Silvia Pinal in the title role, but his producer Serge Silberman over-ruled it.
I should mention at some point that the script was Buñuel's first time working with his frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, the uncontested greatest screenwriter of all time.** Carrière also has a great cameo as a priest who gives the madame of the household some supremely uncomfortable bedroom advice. Anyway, Carrière undoubtedly influenced Buñuel's approach to adapting Mirbeau, but I feel comfortable positing that the young Carrière probably deferred to the legendary Buñuel on Chambermaid more than at any other point in the history of their collaboration - when he was brought on to Chambermaid by Silberman, Carrière had very little experience as a screenwriter, his most notable scripts being for a duo of award-winning Pierre Etaix shorts. Any thoughts I might have about Carrière's contributions to Chambermaid and Bunuel's ideas about Viridiana are purely speculative, so I can't say for certain how exactly Diary's unusual resemblance to Viridiana came about, only that it is a fact.
And here's as good a place as any to mention that Buñuel and Carrière change the name of the ruling family from "Lanlaire" to "Monteil." I've never understood how or why minor changes like that come about in the adaptation process, especially since Célestine remains Célestine, Joseph remains Joseph, Captain Mauger remains Captain Mauger and Mauger's servant/ladyfriend Rose remains Rose. Along those same lines, Paul Bourget isn't mentioned in the film and he more or less gets replaced by an author named Joris-Karl Huysmans, a fairly popular French novelist from the same era as Bourget who was also admired for his brand of artistic Catholic intellectualism. I haven't read Huysmans or Bourget so I can't say what the change brings to the table, or if it's even intended as a precise substitution. John Cribbs pointed out to me that Carrière and Buñuel wrote a script adapting Huysmans' La-Bas that was never realized, so they probably don't intend a full-on Bourget-for-Huysmans switch. I've sought clarification on some of these quirks of process, but most interviews with Carrière and Buñuel on the subject of the film speak in broad strokes and address only the most obvious aspects of the process of adaptation, like the compression of episodes into a single story and the altered ending.
This new ending serves as both the biggest change to the story and really the only instance where Buñuel seems to have a philosophical quarrel with Mirbeau. Buñuel drops any mention of an antique silver heist (and my beloved cruet) and instead of Célestine leaving with Joseph for the cafe in Cherbourg, Célestine uses her romance with Joseph to unsuccessfully frame him for little Claire's rape and murder. In a brief epilogue, we see Joseph at the cafe carrying out his plan with some other strumpet - Célestine instead marries Captain Mauger and starts barking orders at her underlings and acting like the kind of pampered middle-aged lady Mirbeau in his novel spends countless pages making us despise.
I only contrast Célestine's behavior in the final coda with the novel because Madame Monteil is irritating more than reprehensible (unlike Mirbeau's detestable M. Lanlaire) and Buñuel in general does not have it in for the rich and pampered nearly as much as Mirbeau does. In fact, Célestine's bratty behavior with Captain Mauger didn't really click for me as an ironic "Célestine happily ends up as a pampered jerk like her former betters" until I read the novel. I like how subtle and understated her transformation is in Buñuel's film, though - I've found one of the more satisfying complexities of his inexhaustible Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is that Buñuel isn't simply looking to skewer the wealthy and condemn the appeal of a life of martini lunches, fabulous country estates and chauffeur service. For Buñuel, it's not in and of itself objectionable to desire that kind of existence; it's pretty darn reasonable as a matter of fact - so while his film's coda makes a little hay about Célestine becoming exactly what Mirbeau hated, it also acknowledges that their housekeeper (imported from the Lanlaires) is probably better off working for her than being raped all day by her sweaty, slimy former master.
Some of our more critical thinking-oriented readers might have picked up on the fact that Renoir and Buñuel's films have almost nothing in common - furthermore, the small details they pick up from the sprawling novel tend to be entirely different. That makes it somewhat striking that they both seize upon Joseph's declaration to Célestine "Our souls are alike" - in Renoir's film, it's just another half-baked reproduction of something from the book that makes almost no sense in the new context of the film. Mirbeau means the line to be taken as truthful, an expression of insight into Célestine's morally flexible nature and its congruence with Joseph's own moral expediency. Buñuel uses it to generate tension as we consider the moral nature of Célestine - is she like Joseph?
As she seduces him, it's not precisely clear what motivates her and if her intentions are ultimately righteous in motivation. Even if she ultimately really believes that he killed Claire and her frame-up is intended to serve justice, she still displays a moral flexibility to reach that righteous end: she whores herself out and commits a crime (the frame-up) while never proving Joseph's guilt in any meaningful sense or delivering justice for Claire (Joseph gets acquitted). Buñuel stacks the deck in her favor more than Mirbeau: in the book, Joseph's guilt is entirely speculative and left wholly unconfirmed while Buñuel shows Joseph seized by a sudden frenzy after his meeting with Claire in the forest. In both cases, Joseph doesn't come out with anything like a confession, he just repeats the line to Célestine, "You have some bad ideas about me." Célestine's seduction of Joseph has a slightly more ironic tinge in Buñuel's work than Mirbeau's: Mirbeau's Célestine does resemble Joseph in terms of moral bankruptcy, while Buñuel's Célestine shares the valet's immorality but employs it to righteous (I hesitate to say "noble") ends.
That brings me to one of the aspects I was most curious to explore when I picked up the novel: Célestine's feelings for Joseph. In an interview conducted by Jose De La Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent, Buñuel denied Célestine's attraction to Joseph may be authentic - he quashes the idea his activities as a murderer/rapist turn her on. I (and the interviewers) disagree - Jeanne Moreau as Célestine plays it ambiguously and their intimate scenes have an erotic charge. So, I wondered how Mirbeau handled it... and there's no ambiguity. Célestine's suspicions of Joseph's guilt are immediately followed by a lengthy description of his physical sexiness, his big biceps, wide chest, gruff masculinity and whatnot: "the terrible leverage of his loins, the athletic push of his shoulders all combined to make me dreamy."
A few other choice descriptions of her relationship to Joseph: "...prompted by fear as much as by attraction..." "My desire or my fear? I do not know which of these two sentiments it is that moves me." "And this opinion that I have of his moral personality, instead of driving me from him, far from placing a wall of horror between us, causes me, not to love him perhaps, but to take an enormous interest in him...I have always had a weakness for scoundrels. There is something about them that lashes the blood...something strong and bitter that attracts you sexually." Case closed, right? Ultimately, I think Buñuel is less of a cynic than Mirbeau and doesn't want to commit to the idea that his heroine swoons from a perverted lust for criminal brutes.
Mirbeau and Buñuel both contrast Joseph with M. Lanlaire/Monteil, whom the townsfolk suspect of murdering Claire because, in Mirbeau's words, he "outrages little girls who consent to be outraged" (a line not repeated in the film). Michael Piccoli's performance as Monteil feels pathetic, but raw and open - and, as he's in a position of power, dangerous despite his sad-sack nature. He can more or less rape his servants, impregnate them and send them away without repercussion, but he still carries himself like a loser, a man beaten down by life for whom nothing goes his way. He even loses to himself repeatedly at solitaire! His overt, irresistible haplessness (irresistible for his social station) makes for a striking contrast to George Geret's sleepy-lidded Joseph, a beast of a man who hides his monstrousness behind an intellectual opacity. He's tough to read, a closet Anti-Semite and neat-freak with ideas about opening a cafe and whoring his wife out to sailors seeming at odds with his racist, Patriotic moral certitude - these undercurrents swirl violently as he carries himself like the most pedestrian of citizens and dedicated of servants.
Both films make special note of Mirbeau's description of Joseph's fondness for giving the goose the pike, which I never really paid attention to in Buñuel's film until I read the novel. Buñuel's film is full of small details that are evocative on their own, but expanded upon in the novel, and Joseph's line "They're better when they suffer - and I like it that way!" definitely resonates more after you read the book. Since his cruelty occurs off-screen, you don't get as sickening a sense of the torture to which he gleefully subjects animals under the guise of doing what's best for his masters - he claims only to want to make them more delicious, but Mirbeau's stomach-churning talent for grotesquery underlines how bullshit this claim is. Célestine's sexual reaction to Joseph has a palpable charge in relationship to his cruelty, there's a definite S&M dynamic at play in the book that you can feel. Buñuel tamps down on all that (funny to write about a Buñuel artwork as being less perverted and debauched than something else) which I sorta don't know what to make of*** - other than, again, his relative lack of cynicism, especially in regards to Célestine.
Another element that clearly attracts Buñuel to Mirbeau's milieu is his preoccupation with the relationship between power and powerlessness as well as the ways in which we are controlled by our desires and, therefore, fantasies. Renoir has a very straightforward approach to the power dynamic between servants and masters, while Mirbeau has a bit more subtlety and complexity to his critique - unlike with Renoir, Mirbeau's working class isn't composed entirely of saints. Buñuel echoes Mirbeau, but takes things one step farther from Mirbeau's essentially Leftist class-warfare analyses. To his credit, Mirbeau sees that the wealthy and aristocratic can be as enslaved and humiliated by their desires as their servants: "Between the servants' hall and the salon there not such a distance of servitude as we think." However, he offers up repeated episodes where injustice of servitude rains purely downward and servants are abused and humiliated by comfortably self-satisfied masters. In that way, I would say Mirbeau's socio-political critique probably has more in common with Renoir's in that both men see the master/servant dynamic as essentially repulsive and society in need of overhaul. Buñuel's aristocrats are more human, more victim to the human condition and more sadly ossified in their social codes - to Buñuel, to be humiliated and frustrated by desire is inevitable; the rich and poor just have different sets of desires and, therefore, humiliations.
In this context, Célestine is such a perfect character for Buñuel, her coquettish charms, debauched desires and powerful fantasies of wealth and love being right in his wheelhouse. With Buñuel, beautiful women have always been a forceful symbol of the intersection of power and powerlessness: their beauty allows them to control men and, by extension, the world around them, but at the same time they cannot escape their physical selves and are entrapped by the desires their beauty provokes. Mirbeau's Célestine constantly runs into this conflict: she's hired for her beauty on more than one occasion, but also tormented by her constant objectification and the parade of creeps, perverts and gross old men who desire her. If she plays her cards right, she can exploit the situations, but exploiting the situations frequently requires prostitutions both figurative and literal.
The nature of Célestine's relationship to her beauty is a point of departure for Buñuel and Mirbeau. As I mentioned in the Mirbeau section, Célestine is "not for sale" and the film doesn't retain that aspect of her character. That Célestine sells out and marries Captain Mauger in the film presents a different character than the one in the novel that explicitly rejects such practical business-minded marriage proposals in favor of pursuing her compulsive attraction to Joseph or her romantic love of the consumptive M. Georges. I think Buñuel doesn't begrudge Célestine's completely logical willingness to become the enemy, as it were - again, he's not a cynic, even on the subject of cynicism. But this doesn't necessarily present a philosophical disagreement with the novel, which see Célestine's "not for sale" qualities as erratic, even illogical. I think that Mirbeau and his Célestine are simply more bitter than Buñuel and Moreau's version - Mirbeau's novel is fueled by the author's outrage, disappointment and disillusionment. Buñuel finds a discreet charm in the themes of "outrage," "disappointment" and "disillusionment."
It's funny, but when I went through to really catalogue the aspects of the 1964 film that only could have come from Buñuel, it's not clear to me how these essentially Buñuelian elements achieve his signature tone and perspective. Let's look at a few things added to his film that only could have come from him. First off, the scene where Mme. Monteil receives uncomfortable sex advice (and, uh, actually advice on uncomfortable sex) from a local priest. She begs for advice from the father as her over-sexed husband wants "it" constantly, but she finds intercourse too painful. This scene is just a classic Buñuel look at the weird relationship between sex and religion, sexual abnormality and how everyday life is almost entirely perverted and deranged. The priest obliquely advises her with the extremely Buñuelian line "there are caresses...and there are caresses" before declaring that whatever she does to relieve him, she herself should derive no pleasure from it. She assures him that will not be an issue. Problem solved! The scene is funny and strange and perverted while affecting a facade of a decent, moral conversation between two upright citizens.
Apart from the "caresses" line, there are a handful of lines written specifically for the film decisively imbued with Buñuel's deadpan sense of humor. At one point, Joseph declares "Scratch a Bolshevik and you'll find a Jew!" Buñuel has always been great at skewering semi-coherent anti-logic, especially the tortured logics of politics and moralism. Joseph's racist declaration can almost be made sense of, but not really - Buñuel specialized in those kind of transparently deranged aphorisms that attempt to link an unreasonable popular consensus with a base antipathy. These kind of quotes are a parody of statements designed to get heads nodding vigorously in agreement, but that don't express anything that makes actual sense - and Buñuel mines a dark humor from the logic of racists, the deluded and hypocrites.
In fact, later on Buñuel has Montiel justify his seduction of another poor housemaid with his statement to her about how while he might seem conservative, he believes in progressive ideas like l'amour fou. This joke gets echoed in Discreet Charm when Fernando Rey tells a beautiful young militant he's about to molest that they believe in some of the same things, "like free love." Buñuel is poking a little bit of fun both at M. Monteil's moral expediency - of course, he believes in a mad sexual passion; it's pretty fucking convenient (and convenient for pretty fucking) - but Buñuel is also taking a shot at the hollowness of a concept that can be so easily appropriated by its presumed enemies. Speaking of which, placing one of his former cohort André Breton's most famous Surrealists concepts into the mouth of Diary's most pathetic and repulsive character isn't a mistake.****
There's a few film/art history jibes in the film, most notably the potshot at l'amour fou and the epilogue of the film during which not only does Joseph chant "Vive Chiappe!" in support of the Prefect of Police who made Buñuel's life in France hell. The addition of Chiappe might actually be a more direct substitution for Bourget! Furthermore, the film ends with a series of jump-cuts, the only Nouvelle Vague-aping jump-cuts the aestheticism-averse filmmaker ever employed in his career. Buñuel is clearly tying the burgeoning French New Wave (Breathless was released just a few years before Diary) to the gaggle of French fascists chanting the name of his long-time enemy. The reasons for this connection are going to be subject to my idle speculation, but clearly Buñuel seemed to have a bit of antipathy for the Cahiers du Cinéma critics-turned-filmmakers, despite their veneration of his work (Truffaut being a particular fan). That the Cahiers critics were explicitly trying to destroy the French cinema unions, hated the Leftist Positif magazine and had close ties to the Vichy government (most notably Godard's longtime producer Georges de Beauregard) probably didn't sit well with a filmmaker who had spent his life on the opposite side of all of those battles. The fascist mob jump-cuts definitely feel a little like "yeah, I remember guys like you from my time in France." I won't go so far as to say he believed Godard to be a child-murdering rapist who whored out his wife to soldiers, but...there you have it.
Anyhoo, there's a litany of small details that are so Buñuel-specific that I kept fearing they would turn up in the book and undermine my near-religious fervor for Buñuel: the image of the slugs on the legs of Claire's corpse, the crazy old man using a shotgun to take down a butterfly, Célestine's garters as she slips into Joseph's bed for the first time. Before I read the novel, I worried that its most brilliant aspects would just be borrowed from Mirbeau - I don't know why, but I hated the idea that Buñuel's genius might have any precedent. Fortunately, despite his obvious connections to Mirbeau, there are so many elements of his film that only could Minerva'd out of his brain: another gloriously froggish Muni performance, a conversation interrupted as lines of dialogue are drowned out by the clopping of a passing horse (a joke repeated repeatedly in Discreet Charm), his sense of deadpan humor and a weird generosity of spirit towards the mean, the selfish, the murderous, the debauched, the greedy, the pathetic, the frigid and the stupid. Plus, he actually has Célestine break the expensive lamp globe imported from England, which Mirbeau wastes a long time setting up and then forgets about.
But, at the risk of disparaging two great artists in Mirbeau and Renoir, I think there's something in this film that demonstrates what separates greatness like Mirbeau's novel and Renoir at his best from the kind of excellence that survives centuries like Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Jacques le Fatalist...and Buñuel's film. Buñuel's work is palpably better: more brilliant in its philosophy, more complex in its characterizations, more original deep down in its bones. Any number of hacks could have made Renoir's Chambermaid and the fragments of Renoir's personality on display don't exactly make a case for him as an artist - his film's failure says a lot about his failures as an artist on the whole. More generously, there's no point in denying that Renoir achieved cinematic excellence on a regular basis: that we can still feel his personality so strongly in a film as worthless as his Diary reveals a final dividing line between "great" and "maybe the greatest ever." Similarly, there are many things to like about Mirbeau's novel, but the fact that Buñuel could so decisively improve upon it without transforming its soul indicates that it is more or less deserving of its status as a semi-forgotten curio.
I'm not sure whether Renoir and Mirbeau's ghosts should happy that Buñuel effortlessly one-upped them with one more masterpiece in a filmography littered with them: certainly, both of their works would be forgotten or, at best, marginalized without Buñuel's brilliance casting light on their existence.
* A third freeform narrative he made in France, The Milky Way, splits the difference by weaving a series of unconnected sketches (all based on true stories of heresy) around the journey of two pilgrims along the camino de santiago. It also skips through time/history in a way that neither Charm nor Phantom do so. And these three movies might be the most similar in all his filmography. I suppose if you want to get into it, Mexican Bus Ride and Illusion Travels By Streetcar both focus on a collection of character coming together on public transport, but the plots and tones of those films are so wildly different that we're splitting hairs here. Anyhoo, I'm not trying to be an absolutist about this, just pointing how how rare it was for him to go beat-for-beat with plot, setting, characters and themes the way he did with Viridiana and Diary.
** Not an opinion. Pure fact.
*** Me write good. And insight-y.
**** My personal bete noire is how anything Buñuel touched gets referred to as "Surrealist." Scratch a film reviewer and you will find a person who believes Diary of a Chambermaid is a Surrealist take on Mirbeau's novel. Buñuel made two authentically Surrealist films during his association with the group - that's it. Any "surreal" elements of his later films are purely the small "s" version of the term, which has been bastardized to mean "weird shit."
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