Moreau does Mirbeau

Jeanne of the angels

So, before I head off for an actual meeting with an actual exec producer, some semi-baked thoughts on Bunuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, adapted from Octave Mirbeau’s novel, which I re-saw as part of the Jeanne Moreau retrospective. Actually, I was arguably seeing it for the first time, since my V.H.S. experience was not wide-screen. Bunuel can’t have made many ‘Scope films, but he seems perfectly at home in the wide format. And is there anything more beautiful than black-and-white wide-screen? Maybe it’s just the rarity, since wide-screen came into existence parallel with the dying days of black-and-white so there are relatively few films made in both (although THE BAT WHISPERS is an almost-unique 1930s wide-screen experiment, and the occasional film like THE ELEPHANT MAN has united monochrome and ‘Scope).

I always enjoy this film up until the ending, but this time I was determined to get something positive from the ending as well. I failed. I always get sucked into seeing the film as a detective thriller, which it definitely functions as from the time of the murder onwards — a country house detective thriller, in fact. Of course, the real point is the satirical dissection of French society, and this is terrifically enjoyable. Bunuel’s houseful are all enjoyably strange, and while many people wouldn’t regard the film as surreal at all, there are aberrant moments like the secret chemistry lab belonging to the mistress of the house, where she presumably “minces among bad vats and jeroboams, spinneys of murdering herbs, and prepares to compound […] a venomous porridge” for her husband. Michel Piccoli (with hair! on his head!) is the husband, a pitch-perfect portrait of baffled idiot virility, a surging pillar of testosterone reduced to the infantile by his hormonal geyser.


Moreau is part bitch-goddess, part warm and humane heroine, depending on who she’s dealing with. She seems to live by a version of Raymond Durgnat’s Proletarian Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being out-talked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted.” And she becomes the detective heroine, which is exciting.


Except — and I can’t really call this a spoiler, but look away if you’re worried — she doesn’t catch the killer. The film seems explicitly to identify him at the moment the crime is committed, but since the horrific act itself is literally unshowable, his guilt isn’t 100% certain. At a certain point, one begins to doubt if Moreau has set her sights on the right man, and a conventional thriller would have allowed us to jump ahead and suspect Piccoli, only to produce a third, surprise suspect as the guilty party, someone we had dismissed. This being Bunuel, I would then expect some turnaround that leaves the guilty unpunished and the innocent “getting it in the neck”, to use Joe Orton’s description. The ending we get produces no such twists, allowing a happy ending for the killer but transferring the political subtext from the background, where it has been simmering away very effectively, to the foreground, where it seems rather crude and programmatic. The crash of thunder at the end seems particularly unfortunate, especially as Bunuel’s mastery of surprising sound juxtapositions has been very much in evidence: a screeching flock of unseen schoolchildren, a loud passing train where no train can be seen, and sounds that recur, linking apparently unconnected scenes.

I thought of Bunuel and Carriere’s script for THE MONK, eventually filmed by other hands, which likewise avoids the ending dictated by genre but is actually less startling than the “conventional” punishment meted out in Matthew Lewis’ gloriously excessive Gothic novel. Maybe it’s possible to be too clever with these things. I guess the all-round happiness of the ending — with the fascists on the march — comes closest to THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, which has an absurdly upbeat ending I’m very fond of.

If Jean-Claude Carriere’s script-work with Bunuel, on their first collaboration, doesn’t quite satisfy me, his performance as the village priest is hysterical. I wanted more of him. I wanted him to have his own series of films, dispensing awful, cynical advise to his parishioners in exchange for funds for repairing the church roof. He seems about to advise the mistress of the house on how to satisfy her husband without the painful and abhorrent business of penetration, when the alarm is raised and he’s reduced to uselessly attempting to kick down an oaken door (“Damn it!”) — the lady’s father has dropped dead in his locked bedroom while fetishizing a pair of patent-leather shoes, demonstrating that John Carradine’s advice to his sons — “Never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing” — is not always so easy to follow.

The Island of Dr Moreau

When a character says “I’ve got my reasons,” I was of course reminded of Renoir. So I must watch his version of DIARY, which stars Paulette Goddard and is knocking about the house somewhere. Otherwise this is like a kinky GOSFORD PARK — no bad thing.

4 Responses to “Moreau does Mirbeau”

  1. As this has always been one of my favorite endings I can’t agree with you. Not sure what to say about any “detective thriller” aspects as Moreau’s chambermid swans throught the proceedings with chilly indifferecne to everything most of the time. Yes she likes the little girl, but only just — and no more. And yes it nudges Orton at least in the guilty being rewarded part. I don’t think the murderer’s identity was ever in question.

    And furthermore the ending is a slap in the face to that brand of Marxist sentimentality that sees “the people” as innately “good.” They’re cheering Chiappe — the fascist official who went on the ban L’Age d’or. So in a sense “the good” are kicking themselves in their own necks.

  2. Spoilers in this comment:

    I like the ending too, and I think it has elements in common with other Bunuel endings. That clap of thunder is somewhat related to the amazing drum tattoo at the end of Nazarin, for instance. I don’t get a simple heavy-handed vibe from the upping of the fascist motif at the end – probably because the key event of the ending is our heroine letting the fascist take her, which interferes with our desire to construct an us-vs-them narrative. I won’t go so far as to call the fascist motif purely formal, it surely retains a political point of view, but it doesn’t carry the usual implicit “Act now or this will happen to you!” urgency.

  3. I also thought the ending worked quite well. For me the crudity of the ‘message’ contrasted well to the way the rest of the film dealt with incidents that shouldn’t be spoken about in casual conversation – despite most of the character’s proclivities being known and gossiped about by everyone else there is a feeling that it would not be proper to make a big deal about them or talk about them in the wrong company!

    That I think makes the final scene of people shouting their partisan support and making their prejudices known in an almost aggresive manner anthithetical to what has come before.

    I get the strange feeling of giddy liberation from old conventions that the heroine has escaped from to become a nouvelle bourgeoisie (the inherent hypocrisy of that position being something which Bunuel of course later examines more thoroughly!) However I think there is also a disturbing feeling of having simply exchanged one form of oppression for another (after all she is still a servant, just for paying customers rather than one family now) and that she has only moved towards a situation of right and wrong being relative, based on bargaining, rather than codified and status related.

    So, with the kind of philosophical attitude you describe in Durgnat’s commandments, if getting on in the world involves wearing kinky boots, getting intimately acquainted with a child killer or voting facist, then so be it!

  4. Moreau is about to leave her job when she learns the kid has been killed, then she begins her relationship with the killer (I agree we’re meant to accept him as such, but the John Dickson Carr reader in me keeps looking for a twist as if this were Le Corbeau) and then she plants evidence to frame him when she can’t make him confess or find evidence. So I feel her drifting approach to the first half of the story has been given a sense of strong purpose — everything she does is quite deliberate now.

    “The drums of Calanda” heard in Nazarin have an autobiographical significance for LB, and recur in many films, notable L’Age D’Or I think.

    Moreau is clearly going to enslave her husband at the end of the film — she’s much less affectionate now that she’s got him! And it is striking that she wastes no sympathy on his old servant Rose, apparently her friend. The gold-digger wins out over the avenging angel.

    So, yes, I can get with the programme on 80% of this ending, but it still kind of rubs me the wrong way.

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