Jean Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid has for so long been eclipsed by Luis Buñuel's superior remake that it's easy to forget how utterly strange it is. An ostensibly prosaic Hollywood production proceeding, over the course of its first hour-plus, with the tenor of a frothy comic romance, Renoir's class-conscious fairy tale gradually mutates, with little warning, into an almost maudlin tragedy of optimism curdled by the wearying march of time into a bone-deep cynicism and barely muffled rage. It plays, in other words, a kind of surreptitious narrative long-game, chugging along with apparent magnanimity toward a payoff hidden from view. Much as Renoir's earlier, more plainly masterful The Rules of the Game buoyed its upstairs-downstairs drama with a spirit of abandon sharply odds with the seriousness of its themes and the breadth of its scope, Diary of a Chambermaid's oddly jocund manner is a bit of savvy misdirection meant to mask its ulterior point, the real-world consequences of its fantasy setup smuggled in beneath the veneer of a blithe romp.
The premise is in keeping with this deceptively jubilant sensibility: Celestine (Paulette Goddard, eternally delightful), arriving in America from France to a job with the wealthy Lanlaires, decides with sudden conviction to seize for herself the affluence and power she's always envied in her employers, and intends to begin her rapid ascent to the upper classes by ditching deference for a suitably forthright attitude. For a while this plays out like a Preston Sturges comedy, with Celestine playing her own kind of Great McGinty (bullheaded to a fault, but finding nothing but luck and fortune, impressing her masters with assertiveness when it should be getting her fired), and it seems likely that she'll soon waltz, with little conflict or care, into the sunset with a wealthy suitor of her choice. But while the unmitigated glee of a Sturges narrative has much to say about class in its own way, Renoir has considerably different motivations, and his approach to social issues requires an unexpected detour into markedly darker territory. Intimations of violence creep in early and often: The first appears, very incongruously, with a graphic description of the slow and painful death of the house chickens at the hands of sinister-looking valet Joseph (Francis Lederer), who kills their dinner by way of a long pin through the neck. (Call it Chekhov's Pin, a weapon that will naturally return to the action later.)
Is there any better symbol of the sins of the idle rich than a man who needlessly bleeds chickens to death before cooking and eating them? But Joseph is a valet, eternally poor and subservient, so it isn't he who exploits the working classes. That seems to be precisely the point: In the class warfare waged throughout Diary of a Chambermaid, all parties are equally culpable in maintaining the system of exploitation—from Judith Anderson's commanding matriarch, Madam Lanlaire, the very picture of brutality and force, to Joseph himself, a conspirator who's learned to internalize the cruelty and ruthlessness of the upper classes, reflecting it back at them with a cold heart and dead eyes. By the time the film turns to outright murder, in the last act, it seems only a natural extension of desperation of Celestine's bid for a power the world believes she has no right to, an act of physical violence no less damaging to the fabric of the status quo than the invisible oppression it necessarily exerts. For Celestine, there's a happy ending just over the dead bodies, one born into wealth and the other striving to steal it for himself, of those who sought naïvely to liberate her.
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Olive has done about as good a job as one could hope for in bringing Diary of a Chambermaid to home video in high definition, but the source materials they worked with show their age and fragility. For the first 20 minutes especially, the picture has a diffuse quality that speaks to long-term degradation; the image is beset by minor but noticeable scratches and abrasions. Compared to Criterion's Blu-ray releases for, say, The Killers and Beauty and the Beast, both also from 1946, Diary of a Chambermaid has clearly not been properly preserved. That said, it's a credit to Olive that the film looks as good as it does: Through the moderate veneer of damage one can see that this is a sharp, well-balanced image, and it pops at moments when the condition of the materials is less severe. The back half of the film remains in considerably better condition than the first, particularly evident in the deeper blacks and more striking contrast. The included DTS-HD Master Audio track, which comes from a monaural source, proves that the sound has aged much better, and though the mix is a little on the quiet side it's nonetheless crystalline.
Though it's long been eclipsed by the Luis Buñuel remake, Jean Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid endures as a bracing, deeply strange film.