Archive for Octave Mirbeau

Chambermaid of Secrets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2013 by dcairns

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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.

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Moreau does Mirbeau

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2008 by dcairns

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.

Neighbors

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.

Eve

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.