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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 ten or twelve unassailable masters of the medium, he is the wittiest, the least sentimental, the most philosophically imaginative, and formally the most unceremonious. His career stretched nearly fifty years, starting with the silent avant-garde’s last bomb-throwing gasp (the Surrealist anthem short Un Chien Andalou in 1928, devised with Salvador Dali) and culminating amid the death throes of international art cinema, his last masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) hitting the open air at the same time blockbusters began to wreck the popular market and turn moviegoing into a experience of childish spinal emergency. Luis released his grasp on us at just the right time—his quietly wicked, tipsy-Voltairean sensibility never had to do battle with the powers of Reagan-era slope-headedness. He never had to watch the idiosyncratic global presence he’d struggled so determinedly to reestablish in the 1950s become sidelined by market homogeneity.
It’s just as well: from the beginning Buñuel stood outside history and fashion, and just as his flirtation with Surrealist dogma quickly became an individual vision more concerned with conscious human folly than with unconsciousness liberation, Buñuel’s role as a culture producer always required the audience to acclimate to his worldview, never the reverse. It was a worldview fraught with contradictions, defined by patience and scorn, peopled with pious sinners and debauched saints, visually Spartan and yet spasming with bouts of the irrational. This was Luis’s world—welcome to it.
Never commonly considered when Buñuel’s masterworks are enumerated, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) is a simple yet bottomless movie, and the least that could be said for it in its relaxed viciousness and breathtaking confidence is that it suggests there are many more masterpieces in the Buñuel hopechest than anyone has yet supposed. Any clear-eyed toll-taking must include at least five of the terminally underrated Mexican films (El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin and The Young One look today as incisive and pungent, if not as sensationally scalding, as the accepted classic Los Olvidados; Susana, A Woman without Love, El Bruto, Wuthering Heights, Robinson Crusoe and El Rio y el muerte would blaze like comets in anyone else’s filmography.) Likewise, the last third of his career—from the scandal-magnet Viridiana (1961) to his final film—is more than a triumph of world-beaters. It is a run without peer in international cinema; even the normally overlooked Tristana, The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty make Buñuel’s heavyweight contemporaries (Bergman, Fellini) seem self-inflated, ponderous, cognitively leaden and gloomy. Certainly, Diary of a Chambermaid requires critical rehabilitation, if not from malignance, then from neglect. Set on a French manor during the uneasy 1930s but as timeless as neighbor hate and forgotten injustice, the film 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 which—shoes, fake limbs, crucifixes, dinner plates, corsets, etc.—has always been Buñuel’s crucial weapon. Here, Jeanne Moreau’s legs, footware and maid’s uniform are a constant source of angst and swoon; the moviemaking is as besotted as the men around her, giving Moreau’s accouterments 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 own existence.
Moreau is Célestine, a dry-eyed maid in expensive clothes starting work on a huge, petit-bourgeois estate where the servants outnumber the clients. Octave Mirbeau’s novel was first filmed by Jean Renoir in 1946 Hollywood; though the two filmmakers share a demigod-like intimacy with their frustrated characters, they are worlds apart in their regards of basic human virtues. The two movies complement like oil and vinegar. (The back-biting class layers of the central household reflect The Rules of the Game as well, but after a putrefying cure.) Coolly, Célestine 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 wears ridiculous pumps after dark) and predation, culminating in a neighboring girl’s rape/murder in the woods.
But then, Célestine 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 widescreen depth and offscreen action make this newly struck release essential viewing. The movie is, in whatever condition, nearly perfect; there’s nothing wrong with it. 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 of a Chambermaid might not stand out in the cinema texts, or even the Buñuel histories, but it remains one of a modern master’s most sublime creations.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic for the Village Voice, and his new book is Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Editions).