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The Diary of a Chambermaid

The Diary of a Chambermaid(1946)


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In 1939 Jean Renoir fled France and the encroaching Nazi threat with his companion (and later wife) Dido Freire, escaping the country in a car packed with paintings by his father, Pierre Auguste Renoir; not long after that, in 1942, the couple arrived in Hollywood. Renoir and Hollywood weren't exactly made for each other: He was accustomed to having artistic independence as a filmmaker, and he chafed at the commercial constraints the studios placed on him. But even though Renoir would leave Hollywood for France nine years later (after becoming a U.S. citizen), the years he spent there were hardly fallow ones. Chief among the films he made during that time is the 1946 The Diary of a Chambermaid, starring Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith, a picture that, like so much of Renoir's work, is funny, beguiling and unsettling in equal measures.

Goddard plays Celestine, a comely, flirtatious young maidservant who, as the movie opens, is arriving at a new post, the estate of the august Lanlaire family. As she notes in the diary she keeps neatly in pencil, it will be her twelfth job in two years, and even she realizes her track record could raise a few eyebrows: "What is wrong with me? I can certainly boast of having seen many houses and strange faces," and, she adds, of "filthy souls." The suggestion is that Celestine has become morally disillusioned, and perhaps she's had her heart broken, too. Still, she's no naf: When her new employer's valet, the icy-cool and mordantly creepy Joseph (Francis Lederer), picks her up at the train station and asks for her references, she needs to lift both skirt and petticoat to get to them, showing off a healthy stretch of ankle in the process.

And after arriving at her new post, she announces to her new friend the scullery maid (played by a mouse-like Irene Ryan, who would go on to play Granny on TV's Beverly Hillbillies) that she has a plan for turning her life around. "I'm going to fight and I'm going to fight hard," she decrees. "And I don't care who gets hurt as long as it's not me!" She also vows to ensnare the very first man she meets who has the money to keep her.

For a moment, she thinks that might be the bearded, buffoonish master of the house (Reginald Owen), but it turns out he's ruled by his iron-willed wife (Judith Anderson): She's an old-school aristocrat who'd prefer to keep her distance from the lower orders, although the changing face of France is making that impossible. Celestine then sets her sights on the Lanlaires' next-door neighbor, Captain Mauger (Burgess Meredith), an unrepentant republican, hedonist and nutball who also happens to have a lot of money. But Madame Lanlaire has other plans for Celestine, hoping to use her as a seduction tool to keep her sickly and unhappy son, Georges (Hurd Hatfield), close to home. Celestine may be falling in love with Georges -- genuinely -- but the valet Joseph has other plans for her, and by the time this not-quite-a-love-triangle explodes, the picture has shifted its shape and tone several times: At one moment or another, it may be a comedy, a social satire, or a darkly glittering near-noir.

The Diary of a Chambermaid is never named in the list of Renoir's greatest movies, pictures like The Rules of the Game (1939) or Grand Illusion (1937) or The Golden Coach (1952, the last of which Renoir made after his return to France in 1951). But The Diary of a Chambermaid is still of a piece with those films, certainly in the way Renoir keeps the mood light and lilting even when the themes turn somewhat dark, and in his insistence on feeling something for -- and making us feel something for -- characters who don't always behave admirably. Furthermore, Renoir's kindness and warmth toward his actors is evident here, as it is in all his films. It comes through in a letter he wrote to Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard in 1945, shortly before the film was released. (Burgess and Goddard were married at the time the picture was made; Meredith had also written the screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by Octave Mirbeau.) "Paulette, each time I see this picture I become a little prouder of my collaboration with you," Renoir writes. "You are just wonderful, how wonderful I cannot even tell you. I have ruthlessly cut anything slowing down the action, and now Celestine walks through the film with the impetuosity of a force of nature."

In a letter written a few weeks later, just after the film's first preview, Renoir praises Meredith's performance as well, but gives particular weight to his screenplay: "Dear Burgess, our story is powerful and I think you will find the just reward of your stubbornness when you decided to rescue our enterprise from the RKO shipwreck." (RKO had originally intended to release the picture, but Renoir, Meredith and Goddard ended up forming their own company, Camden Productions, to produce it.)

That same letter also betrays hints of Renoir's own perfectionist streak: He refers yet again to meticulous cuts he made in The Diary of a Chambermaid in order to make it move more swiftly or gently skew the audience's attitude toward a character. And even more significantly, he suggests that he fears he didn't do right by Goddard, despite the fact that he's very pleased with her performance: "Maybe these doubts come from the fact I discovered, only when finding myself in the midst of an audience, that this picture was not a 'star' picture, but actually an 'ensemble' picture, with Paulette playing the most important part. And I must admit that my ambition was to make a 'star' picture with her."

The Diary of a Chambermaid isn't, as Renoir astutely surmised, a "star" picture. Goddard anchors it, but she doesn't drive it -- instead, the action swirls around her in unpredictable whorls, half-merry and half-mad. (Eighteen years later, in his version of Diary, starring Jeanne Moreau, Luis Buuel would interpret the same material quite differently, making it more surreal and more salacious.) The Diary of a Chambermaid is hardly the greatest of Renoir's movies, yet it contains hearty doses of what made him great, including a bottomless love of life, and of human beings and all their attendant follies. As the critic John Simon noted in a 1980 New York Times piece, pondering the reasons why nearly all 20th century film critics loved Renoir, "film critics, like filmgoers, are looking for alternative worlds in which to set up imaginary abodes." Simon goes on to assess how inhospitable, if fascinating, some of those worlds are: "American cinema offers mostly a nowhere world with scarcely enough oxygen for dreams to subsist on. The universe of Bergman and Bresson, Kurosawa and Buuel, is lonely if not frightening. Fellini's comedy may be laughing at you. But chez Renoir everyone feels at home." The Diary of a Chambermaid, made when Renoir was just finding his way in his second home, the United States, isn't always easy to parse, yet its challenges are the inclusive kind. It's an odd little picture, but one that comes with its own cheerfully askew welcome mat.

Producer: Benedict Bogeaus, Burgess Meredith; Paulette Goddard (uncredited)
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Burgess Meredith (screenplay); Octave Mirbeau (novel); Andre Heuse, Andre de Lorde, Thielly Nores (play)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Music: Michel Michelet
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Celestine), Burgess Meredith (Captain Mauger), Hurd Hatfield (Georges Lanlaire), Francis Lederer (Joseph), Judith Anderson (Madame Lanlaire), Florence Bates (Rose), Irene Ryan (Louise), Reginald Owen (Captain Lanlaire), Almira Sessions (Marianne).

by Stephanie Zacharek, the chief movie critic for Movieline -

The New York Times
David Thompson and Lorraine LoBianco, editors, Jean Renoir: Letters; Faber and Faber, 1995

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