Criterion Files #117: ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’ and the History of Buñuel

Criterion FilesLuis Buñuel’s adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) was made at a decisive point in the master filmmaker’s long, dynamic, and illustrious career. The film marked Buñuel’s second foray into European filmmaking after an almost thirty-year hiatus, during which time he made a large number of films in Mexico, contributing greatly to what is now considered the nation’s midcentury cinematic Golden Age. The Spanish filmmaker first returned to Europe to make Viridiana (1961) in Spain (the only film Buñuel ever completed in his native country). Viridiana proved a sensation in every sense of the word: it made a huge splash for international critics and audiences starting with its enthusiastic reception at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and it was met with legendary controversy (no stranger to the filmmaker) in Franco’s tightly-regulated Spain.

Viridiana revisits several of Buñuels’ thematic preoccupations from his Surrealist years in France and his pseudo-social-realist films in Mexico, specifically in terms of the infamous atheist’s routine subversion of religious iconography. The now-iconic scene where a group of vagrants sit around a grand dinner table, positioned in a way reminiscent of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-98), proved to be a heretical image for one audience and a brilliant and beautiful inversion for another (By the way, why did nobody in the Catholic community say that critiquing Renaissance art isn’t heretical? Is Da Vinci Jesus?).

Diary of a Chambermaid structurally resembles Viridiana in its first act with its portrayal of an attempted sexual attack from a sexually deviant patriarch. But unlike Silvia Pinal’s relatively submissive and virginal protagonist (the Mary connotations are not without weight), Jeanne Moreau’s enigmatic chambermaid is a self-assured “new woman,” free of coherent ideology and open to taking advantage of men just as she is taken advantage of by them. Moreau had certainly developed a star persona as a strong, autonomous, and enduringly mysterious woman, having helped usher in the New Wave with Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957) and Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). While Spain retained its stringent class and religious structures, the France Buñuel returned to in the mid-1960s possessed little in common with the country he left in the mid-1930s. It’s meta-appropriate that Diary of a Chambermaid takes place during the first step of the decisive historical transition that determined the second stage (from France to Mexico) of Buñuel’s career, but was made during a time that would characterize his last (his return to Europe).

The French Spaniard

Diary of a Chambermaid arguably begins the “French period” that would define the remainder of Buñuel’s lengthy filmography and bring forth some of his most celebrated later films (e.g., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), his swan song That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)). While religious themes would certainly surmise during these years, they do not hold a central place in films made for a France (or, at least, a Paris) that valued religion less and less in its cukture. For instance, by the time Buñuel released The Milky Way (1969), a pseudo-sequel to his Surrealist anti-religious satire L’Âge d’Or (1930), its critique of organized religion already seemed irrelevant to a France that had experienced the modernist revolutions of May 1968.

Even the director’s brief return to Mexico in the meantime still brought forth a “European” approach to his work. Buñuel himself admits that his Discreet Charm-resembling Mexican film The Exterminating Angel (1962, made in between Chambermaid and Viridiana) takes place in a Mexico that does not, in fact exist, as the bourgeois class depicted and critiqued in this film greater resembled that of his native Spain and his precious France than possessing any direct correlation with the class structures of 1960s Mexican society. The Exterminating Angel (and his incomplete, final return to Mexico that followed Chambermaid, Simon of the Desert (1965)) marked a distinct break from the social-realist style Buñuel imbued throughout his Mexican period in films like Los Olvidados (1950) and Nazarín (1959, though many of these films have isolated surrealist moments or sequences). Even in the brief epilogue of his Mexican career, Buñuel was firmly entrenched in his Late European period and preoccupied with European culture and themes from Viridiana, and Chambermaid, onward.

France, 1930

1930 was an important year for Buñuel. His 1928, Salvador Dalí-co-directed short Un Chien andalou was, to Dalí and Buñuel’s measured disappointment, a lauded success in Paris upon its release. These pioneering Surrealists hoped the film would prove controversial and garner catcalls and riots, but in the celebrated avant-garde of 1920s Paris (the one depicted in last year’s Midnight in Paris, complete with actors portraying Dalí and Buñuel), nearly anything went and anything received. This was not without potent irony considering that the bourgeois class obliquely criticized in the film also financed and celebrated it.

But Bunuel’s next film, L’Âge d’Or (which was co-credited to but had less involvement from Dalí), would prove to find the violent reaction the filmmaker was hoping for with Un Chien anadalou. The hour-long film is a more involved and thorough critique of bourgeois culture and religious symbology (and a superior film in this author’s opinion). During a screening held on December 3, 1930, the anti-Semitic and pseudo-fascist organization The League of Patriots organized an in-house protest of the film, complete – in perhaps the dumbest and most futile attempt at “destroying” a film on historical record – with throwing black ink at the screen onto which the film was projected. The moment that motivated their ire was the juxtaposition of a Catholic monstrance next to a woman’s bare legs as she is let out of a town car for a social soiree. The joint critique of class and religious institution is abundantly clear. If only the rioters had stuck around long enough to see Jesus Christ portray the Marquis de Sade in the film’s last act.

The 1930 riot predicted a rise in far-right politics that would lead to the Catholic Church’s complicity in (through lack of condemnation of) the rise of European fascism in the following decade. A challenging Surrealist film in the more conservative 1930 proved a great deal more threatening than one exhibited a mere two years earlier. Buñuel, though not Jewish, became an ex-pat like so many great artists of the time as he entered his Mexican Period. The terrifying, portending ending of Diary of a Chambermaid is not without incredible significance to Buñuel’s own career, as it illustrates an ascent towards Fascism and a rise in anti-Semitism amongst the French in the exact year that one of Buñuel’s most notorious works was protested against and eventually banned. The jarring lightning strike and jump cuts that accompany the “1930” title card even resemble the deliberately haphazard assemblage of sound and image in L’Âge d’Or, which marks a stylistic break from Chambermaid’s relatively classical style leading up to this point. Buñuel’s return to France with Chambermaid, and the great entries on his ouvre that followed, signals that it only took three harsh decades for France to catch up with Buñuel.

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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