Monday, July 15, 2013

FI: The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)

The Diary of a Chambermaid
US, 1946
Directed by Jean Renoir

The great French director Jean Renoir had an often-forgotten (and, reputedly, often forgettable) Hollywood period in the 1940's. One of the films to come out of that period is The Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted by co-star Burgess Meredith from Oscar Mirbeau's French novel and the subsequent play by Heuse, de Lord, and Nores. Paulette Goddard stars as Celestine, a chambermaid whose sex appeal has inadvertently ensnared many former employers, forcing her from several jobs. Wanting to escape this pattern, Celestine learns a new assertiveness and begins using her charms to become a player in the games her colleagues and employers play, rather than just a piece on the board. Given Diary's subject matter, you would expect the film to focus on the limited options a lowborn woman faces, and the high personal cost she pays for attempting to change her social status in a hidebound, sexist, class system, but the end result is perhaps less sharp than it ought to be.

Renoir's film has some of his usual touches, from an awareness of gender issues and upper-class hypocrisy, to the strain of humanism underlying it all. The direction and camera work are smooth, clear, and well-managed, and there are some deft, humorous sequences, largely funneled through Meredith's next-door neighbor character. Though many of the male characters seem a bit one-note, Goddard is a good fit in the lead role, and Judith Anderson lends her an air of her trademark menace and intrigue as Celestine's employer.

Unfortunately, the whole thing is weighed down by a script that feels overstuffed and muddled at times, listless and inevitable at others—perhaps due to the restrictions of the production code, which would have prevented the material from getting too critical, dark, or scabrous. The film also avoids most of the overt political material apparent in the source, and mitigates its dark side through a more Hollywood-friendly romance that never feels quite right. Luis Buñuel would make a more effective—and, as you'd expect, darker, more political, and sexually provocative—version of the film in France in 1964, and while neither is flawless, the latter is the one I would more readily recommend. As for Renoir, he tackled many of the same issues far more effectively in his classic La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game). You're better off watching that instead.

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