Chambermaid of Secrets

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Burgess Meredith (above, left) must be the actor most associated with author Octave Mirbeau — he stars in the Amicus horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, which admittedly owes nothing but its title to Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices, but he also scripted and appears in Jean Renoir’s film of THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID.

Renoir and Meredith do right by Mirbeau’s unfilmable (but filmed several times: once by Bunuel) book, by making a film which one cannot conceive of as a Hollywood product. Paulette Goddard, who has turned hard-hearted after unspecified mistreatment by men and by the upper classes, enters her new position determined to find a rich husband and leave behind the world of manual toil. Immediately we sense trouble, as the mistress of the house is Judith Anderson. The master is kindly duffer Reginald Owen in a Boudou beard, playing a dreamy sort of Lord Emsworth dolt. Further eccentricity is provided by neighbour Burgess Meredith himself, who eats flowers and throws stones (but never the other way around — stones have no flavour).

Meredith seems like possible husband material, which shows how hard up Paulette is. He has money salted away, but when Paulette’s attentions over-excite him and he accidentally kills his beloved pet squirrel, she starts to suspect that being his fiancée might be fraught with peril.

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Does this sound like a Hollywood movie so far?

Then the young master comes home from his debauches, and he is Hurd Hatfield, which means that Paulette is sharing house with Dorian Gray, Mrs Danvers, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen played the latter three). With the Penguin living just across the way. Anderson/Danvers sets about pimping out the new maid to persuade her psycho son, who is the apple of her eye but who despises her fervently, to stick around the family pile.

Hatfield is a surly invalid who reads the grimmer bits of Shakespeare (“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…”), clearly meant to suggest Sade. To Paulette, he seems a potential mark, but his mood swings and unhealthy relationship with mother tend to rule him out. Then a new prospect emerges from an unlikely quarter. Valet Francis Lederer (from CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and PANDORA’S BOX) proposes buying a bar with loot raised by stealing the silverware, and Paulette is amenable.

The film’s only turn towards conventional Hollywood morality is Paulette’s last-minute conversion to righteousness after Lederer stoops to murder. Even then, the conventional romantic solution is undercut by an earlier, throwaway moment when Owen, reading the Paris newspaper, remarks upon the latest case of murder — WOMAN MUTILATED! — and we ask herself, who has been in Paris? Why has the line been placed there? What are you implying, Jean Renoir? As the happy couple head off into the sunset, we recall that both of them had been in Paris not long before…

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Bottom-scraping indie Benedict Bogeaus produced, and the film has a cheap feel — Eugene Lourie’s sets don’t convince, nor do they create a particularly alluring sense of fakery, and to be honest Renoir doesn’t do the best job of concealing the threadbare cyclorama. But he does whirl the camera about with some brio at the violent climax, and this may be the one US film on his CV that hits the notes of unsettling, tone-clashing weirdness that we find in some of his French films (the Lourie-designed RULES OF THE GAME, for one). Hurd Hatfield believed that Paulette was all wrong for the movie due to her “cheap-sounding” American accent, but in a movie where Lederer’s German and Owen’s English accents both represent French characters, where should one look for a barometer of linguistic authenticity? As with CLUNY BROWN (Owen’s second role as lord of the manor that year), Brits above stairs and Yanks below makes a feasible and not too distracting scheme.

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Francis L has a special spike for slowly murdering geese. Because that’s how he rolls.

We rather loved it. We watched SWAMP WATER the following night, and that one is a proper terrific film, but DOAC is bananas, the kind of thing where you can’t figure out why it exists but you’re glad it does. Fiona and I recognized it as a kindred spirit.

10 Responses to “Chambermaid of Secrets”

  1. No it’s not a Hollywood movie — it’s a Benedict Bogeaus production. Read his credits. They tell a fascinating tale of fascinating films and filmmakers.

  2. I just saw a print of the Bogeaus production DARK WATERS, a minor but fun Southern Gothic take on Gaslight directed by Andre de Toth. The cast isn’t quite up to that of CHAMBERMAID, but Thomas Mitchell and Elisha Cook make a strange and unlikely pair of villains.

  3. I like Diary of a Chambermaid precisely because it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood movie. And the great thing is that the film feels more weird and surreal than Bunuel’s version with Jeanne Moreau(excellent film). And the camera movements at the end are incredible.

  4. I wonder what the deal was with BB? His credits do indeed sprawl over a fairly diverse artistic landscape.

    Renoir’s sweeping crane shots at the climax defeat the sound and lighting departments, resulting in some glaring boom shadows, but the overall effect is stunning. It helps that this is one of the few Hollywood movies where you really have no idea how it’s going to end up — the effect is of being propelled headlong towards the unknown. Scarier than most horror movies, and makes you wonder how Val Lewton and Renoir would have gotten along.

  5. What did you think of Swamp Water? I remember that being an exceedingly strange film – up there with “Picnic on the Grass” and “Experiment in Evil” in terms of peculiar Renoir.

    All those films BB made with Dwan are very strange – the French director Serge Bozon programmed “Tennessee’s Partner” at Anthology a year or so ago and it was pretty striking.

  6. We loved Swamp Water. Its commendable attempts at a kind of ethnographic realism and its lucid story made it less strange to us than TDOAC. I would sum up its point as “human society is corrupt and barbaric much of the time, but it is still better to be part of it than alone.”

    My progress into Dwan’s work has been slow thus far. I reviewed Most Dangerous Man Alive here and was mainly struck by the grubbiness of the print and the cartoon simplicity of it all. Would like to see a better copy.

    Have now seen all Renoir’s English-language films, but there are swathes of his French work I still have to get into. A treat in store.

  7. La Nuit de Carrefour should be of special interest to you.

  8. Oh, I love that one — did a Forgotten on it. It’s like Dreyer’s Vampyr, so strange! Daring elisions, plot threads lost in the fog!

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