Openly, serenely delighted with how our own dreams can appall us, and how close movies are to that appalling dreaminess, Luis Buñuel may have been the greatest filmmaker of the first century. Certainly, among the 10 or 12 unassailable masters of the medium, he is the wittiest, the least sentimental, the most philosophically imaginative, and formally the most unceremonious. Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), perhaps the most surprising of Film Forum’s recent, newly minted rerelease choices, is an apt discovery—it’s rarely considered when Buñuel’s world-beaters are enumerated, but the movie’s relaxed viciousness and breathtaking confidence suggest that there are many more masterpieces in the Buñuel hope chest than anyone has yet supposed. (That includes at least four of the terminally underrated Mexican films.) Set on a French manor during the uneasy ’30s but as timeless as neighbor hate and forgotten injustice, the movie pivots on Buñuel’s favorite subject: men twisted inside like rope by the tensions of their own absurd desires, and by their preposterous presumption that they’re worthy of their own obscure objects.
The fetishizing power of objects—shoes, fake limbs, crucifixes, dinner plates, corsets, etc.—has always been Buñuel’s crucial weapon. Here, Jeanne Moreau’s legs, footwear, and maid’s uniform are constant sources of angst and swoon; the moviemaking is as besotted as the men around her, giving Moreau’s accoutrements a bogus mystical aura that’s just as funny as family son Michel Piccoli’s high-strung case of blue balls. (Buñuel’s not being superior: He had his own ardor for things, and his own irrational lusts.) Mad with images of nature in rebellion (that lucky frog, those monster snails, the butterfly summarily shotgunned off a flower), Diary is a droll vision of Eden during the Fall—human privilege battling for its life.
Moreau is Celestine, a dry-eyed maid starting work on a huge, petty-bourgeois estate where the servants outnumber the clients. Octave Mirbeau’s novel was first filmed by Renoir in 1946 Hollywood; though the two filmmakers share an omniscient intimacy with their frustrated characters, they are worlds apart in their regard of basic human virtues. The two movies complement like oil and vinegar. (The backbiting class layers of the central household reflect The Rules of the Game as well, but after a putrefying cure.) Coolly, Celestine serves as the director’s proxy, witnessing every manifestation of mundane cruelty, hypocrisy, bigotry, molestation (the old patriarch fondles her calf while she reads, and insists she wear ridiculous pumps after dark), and predation, culminating in a neighboring girl’s rape and murder in the woods.
But then, Celestine embroils herself in the melee in surprisingly seamy ways, though never surrendering to the dilemma of desire herself. Moreau’s imperious ambiguity has never been better utilized, and Buñuel’s mastery of wide-screen depth and offscreen action make the new release essential viewing. (The subtitles are fresh, too.) The movie is, in whatever condition, nearly perfect. Still, while rarely abstruse, Buñuel can be a challenge for some viewers—he’s no show-off, and doesn’t flatter us with kindness. But in launching through his amazing inventory, there’s a point of no return, a point at which you understand his cosmic jocularity and sympathetic eviscerations on a blood level, and thereafter everything Luis did is touched by stunning wisdom and joy. Diary might not stand out in the cinema texts, or even the Buñuel histories, but once you’re on its wavelength, it’s the best show in town.