Friday, March 18, 2016

The Liberated Woman and the Strong Man in the Servant's Quarters

So much adventure awaits the Parisian chambermaid who decides to go work in the country--bizarre sexual fetishes, murder, rape, animal mutilation, and flagrant disregard for the neighbours. These things Celestine finds in Luis Bunuel's 1964 film Diary of a Chambermaid (Le journal d'une femme de chambre). Populated by human beings who compulsively abuse their positions, however humble, to satisfy sexual desires or who exploit their sexual appeal to advance their positions, this film is filled with Bunuel's distinctive political and social humour.

Jeanne Moreau plays Celestine whose nice shoes are immediately noticed by the coach driver, Joseph (Georges Geret), who is also the house groundskeeper. He amuses himself by capturing animals and torturing them to death. He disgusts Celestine.

The large home is occupied by a middle aged married couple and the wife's elderly father, Rabour (Jean Ozenne), who promptly takes Celetine into his study and asks her to help indulge in his fondness for women's shoes.

Not like the uncle in Bunuel's Viridiana who wears his wife's wedding shoes. Rabour asks Celestine to wear some ankle boots and walk around in them before he takes them off her feet personally. She has no objection, particularly as the man's authority overrides his daughter, Madame Monteil (Francoise Lugagne), whose strict instructions to Celestine may have something to do with the fact that her husband, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), has his eye on the chambermaid, too. In fact, he got the last one pregnant. Meanwhile, Celestine makes friends with the neighbours who seem to be in a passive aggressive war with the Monteils. Mainly their antagonism takes the form of gleefully throwing garbage onto the Monsieur Monteil's property.

Celestine's identity as a cosmopolitan woman casual about sex is shown to be what enables her to navigate this little universe of gentry hypocrisy, which is probably why the down to Earth but sadistic Joseph disgusts her even more. When a child is raped and murdered halfway through the film, it's clear Celestine and Joseph are the only two capable of taking actions based on their principles rather than being merely dominated by their compulsions. A lot of the characters discuss politics and the servants encourage one another's racism, blaming the presence of Italians and Jews for the economic troubles in Europe--the film is set in the 1930s. So the conflict between Joseph and Celestine becomes an interestingly personal contemplation of political ideology.

It's not unlike Viridiana with its three figures representing three aspects of the political discourse--the strong man, the altruist, and the citizenry. In this case, Bunuel seems to be exploring how effective noble sexual liberation might be in effecting change in institutions.

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