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Mirbeau to Bunuel:

 Charm of the Chambermaid​

Published in 1900,  Le journal d`une femme de chambre, The Chambemaidis anarchist Octave Mirabeau's scandalous tale of a Parisian maid employed in a bourgeoisie country home. It sounds fairly simple a plot, though this torrid tale puts Wisteria Lane to shame, with Harper Collins introducing her to the contemporary American public in 2007: Censorship no longer a liability, especially with the recent success of sexual submission and masochism in E.L. James', Fifty Shades of Grey.


Normality impoverishes while deviancy enriches offering a plethora of improvisational possibilities.  Robert Zeigler


September 1964 Bunuel's The Chambermaid 
premiered with weak review  at the New York Film Festival.  In his  review for the New York Times, film critic Eugene Archer laments, "Sadly, the intervening decades seem to have weakened Mr. Bunuel's powers.  His new adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's The Diary of  a Chambermaid suffers in comparison with the strange but memorable version Jean Renoir did with Paulette Goddard in 1946."  Archer continues, complimenting the popular Jeanne Moreau, then remarking on the directors use of the appealing actress, "It seems an ungrateful way to treat a brilliant star whose subtly modulated acting gives meaning to an unresolved and ambiguous script."

The Diary of Chambermaid is a challenge, even today,  in part due to the unique sexual issues it addresses, and also due to the  precise scathing social commentary it reveals of (contemproary socio economic and sexual disparities, along with the original) late 19th century class struggle dividing nobles, aristocracy, bourgeois and the peasant class as told through the diaries of a common petite proletariat, Celestine. Daughter of abusive drunkard who died when she was young, Celestine matured devoid of both love and stability. She is fascinated by experience and emotion, devoid of fear of consequence or situation. At an equally early age she becomes an agency chambermaid. In each household she emanates the perfected persona of that which is expected, and in each household bizarre, cold, yet humorous intimacies abound. Celestine is polite, yet with the passing of each household position she becomes more and more empty behind her placid mask. Celestine is, to quote the novel, Originating no where. Belonging no where.; she is only of the moment we view her and her escapades, devoid of all relevant societal identity and status. Fans of Octave Mirbeau will appreciate the story for his signature style of grandiose prose and scathing social commentary.

The sordid tale begins with Celestine entering into a new position at the provincial country home of  the Lanlaire (Monteils in Bunuel's film) family.  It is there that Celestine begins a diary of her past and present experiences.  The primary tale is of her-day-to-day life with the Lanlaires, the household servants and neighbors,  the retired Captain  Mauger and his servant-wife Rose.  Her diaries offer hysterical, cynical commentary of the continuous barrage of sexual advances and violent assaults to her  sense of class and culture.  Originally Mirabeau stated that the book was written by an actual anonymous chambermaid of the day, and that he only polished the tale to make it marketable; a rumor the literary public enthusiastically believed at the time of first press. The French public adored the deviant chambermaid!

"I am no saint;" writes Celestine, "I have known many men, and I know
by experience, all the madness, all the vileness of which they are capable ... !"


Famous to the story and also the film, the elder patriarch of Celestine's newly assigned position  has a secret  - or not so secret - foot fetish.  As the Lanlaire carriageman and groundsman Joseph,  delivers Celestine to the house, he comments on the ride from the station that Celestine best have many shoes.  She thinks him simple minded and country rogue, not realizing he is slyly revealing part of her household role.  The aging Mr. Rabour immediately names Celestine ~Marie~,  which is shorter and more to his liking, and despite the household having to  go by stocking feet, he has her  walk around  in high-heeled leather boots, which he  decides he is to polish to perfection each night at the end of her service.   Zeigler describes this famous series of scenes with psychoanalytical precision, ~Rabour is a textbook example of a fetishist driven by mutilation anxiety.  Unwilling, Freud says, to relinquish ~ his belief that women have a phallus ~ Rabour's castration fears may be amplified by the prospect of losing the mother altogether, creating an absence filled by the servant with her versatile identity. Zeigler adds that the polishing of the shoe was   - most obviously - equal to masturbation!  Ah, do the bourgeois actually do such things?  In vastly different ways, both Mirbeau and Bunuel are viciously famous for contemplating what the affluent and  moral do not do and do (when they believe no one else will know).

The kindly Rabour's  fetish comes to an early end when he is found dead in his bed.   In Bunuel's film version he is locked in his room,  on his back, gingerly holding the boot in his hands. In the novel it is a tense scene where, his jaw, set in rigor mortis will not let go of the boot jammed deep into his mouth, which Celestine must aggressively tear loose before Rabour's  frigid daughter and flirty son-in-law, or the other household servants of the Lanlaire family discover the bizarre and scandalous mystery of attraction. So begins our adventures with the aging ingenue Celestine as she  shares the guilty secrets of her past employers;  and also as she unknowingly prepares to embrace an  unexpected  evolution  from servant to Madame inspired by her concupiscence attraction for Joseph.

Both novel and film address issues of radical , if not virulent, nationalism, fascism, class ism,  anti-Semitism leading up to the First World War,  along with the separation of intention between fetish behavior, and child rape  or murder;  however, the comic shock of the  boot in the dead man's hand/mouth remains the vintage  cinema's most noted claim to fame. The quiet black and white film does not convey the Danielle Steele style steamy and sexy story mixed  with scathing social commentary which shocked and titillated the publication's original audience.  "Diary" is a scandalous, sexual, mad adventure that is almost all but lost in Bunuel's political dry film, and though Renoir attempted to show the folly of escapades, he too fell shy of Mirbeau's original success.

Fair to the intent of the director, Bunuel chose to focus on the  issues of nationalism and anti-Semitism the novel addresses as a result of the politically scandalous Dreyfus Affair, though in the film it is to keep the focus of political interest on Joseph, with Celestine being somewhat peripheral and pure. She is the symbol of good despite situation and circumstance.   Even the rape of a young peasant girl, which in the story is what attracts Celestine to Joseph with subservient fascination,  is altered to accommodate the political feel of the film, as opposed to erotic power exchange on its most raw and brute level as presented in the original tale.  

In  Bunuel's film Celestine - tired of the pathetic folly of the household -  is going to return to the city, yet the murder of little Clarie is too upsetting.  She knows Joseph is the murderer  after watching in shock as he slowly, tortuously  kills a duck. "It is necessary to make it suffer."  He said, "The more it suffers, the better its blood will taste".  She is determined get his confession. She has sex with him and promises to marry him. In spite of her engagement she fakes evidence to implicate him in the murder.  He is released - the evidence is inconclusive and  he is a loyal member of the nationalist party.  Celestine then finds safety and stability in the arms of the retired Captain.  Celestine is lost in the film!  We know there is more to Celestine that we see.  In the novel, the chambermaid is revealed for feeling overwhelmed with primordial fear and attraction for Joseph; an attraction which frees Celestine from the mundane work and the  tiresome drama of her employers.   Even in his position as a rebel director,  it seemsBunuel' dared not delve deep into the truly dark, deviant sexual nature of the jaded chambermaid.

Unlike director Bunuel,  literary critic Zeigler explores how Mirabeau shows Celestine, "herself exhibiting a constellation of behaviors reminiscent of the male fetishist's proclivities:  attention to the feet, manipulation of undergarments important for their contiguity to the genitals, caressing of furs suggestive of pubic hair, handling of intimate apparel and accessories as symbolic replacements for the female phallus, which the fetishist knows - and does not know  - is nonexistent. / Pleasure arises from the delusional conviction that silks, lace, adornments,  and fragrances make the defective mistress whole, transforming the hateful impostor."

In her diary Celestine writes her views of the servant class, "A domestic is not a normal being; a social being. [S]he is an incongruous personage, made up of pieces and bits that  cannot fit into one another, that can only lie next to each other.  [S]he is something worse -- a monstrous human hybrid."  Celestine is aware that she is a hateful imposter.

Hateful she is in many ways, though she is very calm in her disdain -- until she finds herself charmed.  She is, as Zeigler notes, "skilled in the art of emasculating demystification",  however in the presence of Joseph she is, "left pensive and disarmed, aroused by the scent of his brutishness and violence".

Violent he is!  Rumor spreads through the village and surrounding countryside after 12 year old Claire, the  young peasant girl who sometimes spent afternoons sitting with the servants at the Lanlaires, is found  brutally violated, disemboweled after being raped with an axe and left for dead in  the mushroom fields of  the nearby forest.  In the film, this pivotal scene is what devotes Celestine to a mission in the name of bringing young Claire's murdered to justice;  in the novel, it is an aphrodisiac ~ she becomes entranced at the powerful aura and mystery of Joseph in comparison to the impotent and hypocritical husbands she serves as a maid servant.  Joseph  displays a violence which carries a sexual promise.  That is the true conflict, for the placid and compliant persona created by her position is broken by  the intensely sexual, ineffable attraction for a man who is in every way a racist, a rogue, a brute and a bastard.  As the residents of surrounding towns become enthralled in heated debates over the possible killer,  searching for scapegoats,  arguing over religion and politics.

Celestine goes about her household  tasks each day, watching Joseph as he tends to his  garden chores -   and each night she shares with us in her diary experiences so  shockingly lewd and hilarious it is unclear whether you should gasp with moral or heartily laugh.    For example, realizing she will not be able to visit the grave site on the anniversary of the death a young man named M. Georges, she reflects how she killed the ill child with her caresses and love. Hired through the agency by the boy's grandmother, all of his family had died of diphtheria; he was all that was left, and he was very fragile, in need of round the clock care of a nursemaid.  Celestine found him charming and adorable despite his pale, weak appearance. During his illness they shared the poetry of  Victor Hugo, Beaudelair, and Verlaine, all which filled the stale air of sickness with exclamations of devotion, sacrifice and heroism.  They fell into attraction as disorienting as fever; or at least M. Georges did.  Finally he confronted Celestine with his interests.  He needed to feel her lips. He needed to deeply kiss her.  Georges was ill.  He was weak.  He could not be excited. Though she adamantly refused, in the end what she wrote could leave the most jaded of souls speechless: "Oh!  that first kiss of M. Georges, his awkward and delicate caresses, the passionate artlessness of all of his movements, and the wondering expression of his in presence of the mystery ..." A few paragraphs later Celestine shares her guilt, and also something much different. Something so frightening, it certainly was not considered as potentially humorous as Mr. Rabour getting the boot! Her diary continues, "A sudden change had taken place in me.  In my kiss there was something sinister and madly criminal. Knowing that I was killing Georges, I was furiously bent upon killing myself also, of the same joy and of the same disease.  Deliberately I sacrificed his life and mine.  With a wild and bitter exaltation I breathed in and drank in death, all the death, from his mouth;  and I besmeared my lips with his poison. Once, when he was coughing, seized in my arms, with a more violent attack than usual, I saw, foaming on his lips, a huge and unclean clot of blood-streaked phlegm.  ~ Give. Give. Give. ~  And I swallowed the phlegm with murderous avidity, as I would have swallowed a life-giving cordial." She carried his infectious phlegm within her awaiting her death, which would not come with his. Before Georges died, he shared with Celestine that she was his poem, "all my poems, and far the most beautiful of all." A truly romance! Though the grandmother - knowing nothing of the affair - desperately wanted for Celestine to stay on with her after the death of M. Georges, Celestine politely refused, finding work - instead - with the Lanlaires.

Amidst the cascade of continuous scandal the day to day is empty.  Celestine lives in a world where her  house mistresses count prunes each night to be sure she does not steal food.  She has no property of her own.  She has no identity of her own.  She is lost in the moods and moments of others.   In the end Celestine is rescued from her fate of the empty and mundane by the rogue element from which she originally trembled in fascinated fear.  "I have always had a weakness for scoundrels.  There is something unexpected about them that lashes the blood -- a special odor that intoxicates you -- something strong and bitter that attracts you sexually.However infamous scoundrels may be, they are never as infamous as the respectable people".  Joseph steals all the  silver in the Lanlaire house so that he may open his own cafe in his hometown of Cherbourg,  a dangerous, bustling district of intense nationalist loyalty amongst the military and merchant travelers.  He persuades Celestine to  travel back home with him as his wife,  transforming her into the role of a business owner.  She soon treats her own employees with an equal amount of disdain as she herself endured. She is finally content, though, in her true role as Joseph prize and property: no longer lost in role play, she relishes her final role now as the dominant bourgeois under his command!   Celestine's diary ends in celebration of her finally content state of subservience, "And I am happy to be his. I feel that I shall do whatever he wishes me to do, and that I shall go where ever he wishes me to go ...  even to crime!"   Zeigler summarizes the intention of the tale simply as Mirbeau's rejection of  " ... utopia as an organized, stable world..." Something both Renoir - and especially Bunuel -  enjoyed toying with in their own right!Take a literary break from Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City:


Bring on the

 Naughty Novel

The Diary of ​

THE CHAMBERMAID

finis

Luis Bunuel (1900-1983), described as the "Father of Surrealism". A film director of Spanish heritage, he also lived in France, the US and Mexico. His repertoire includes Un chien andalou made with Salvadore Dali,  L'age   d'or, Los olvidados, Viridiana, Belle de Jour,   Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie and Cet obscur ob-jet due desir .

Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) anarchist, self-made affluent, and a patron of artists and causes.  Besides his popular writing, Mirbeau is also celebrated for his life long investment in the French Impressionist movement, his defense of Dreyfus,  and his support of the imprisoned socialist-turned-anarchist Jean Grave.  Other literary pieces by Mirbeau include: Le jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden) and La 628-E8.  As Robert Zeigler has commented, "Mirbeau evolved a fictional dynamic that extolled speed and heat, vertigo and combustion."

Jean Renoir (1894 - 1979),  film director, actor,  and author. As a film director and actor, he made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s.  His repetroire includes:  La Chienne , Boudu sauve des eaux, La Vie Est a Nous, La Bete Humaine, and most popular amongst critics, The Rules of the Game.