MOVIE SHELF: COMPARING FILMS TO THEIR LITERARY COUNTERPARTS

christopher funderburg

RENOIR & BUÑUEL'S DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID

based on LE JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE by OCTAVE MIRBEAU

Welcome to Movie Shelf, a series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases. We at the 'smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the original source material, what he changes, how the two different works vary from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book and vice versa. All this and more will be examined in this ongoing line of articles.

 

"Is all that happens to me really my fault?"

"'Have you ever seen anything as stupid as a chestnut tree?"

Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel Le Journal d'une femme de chambre holds the notable position of having been adapted into films by two lumbering titans of le cinema, Jean Renoir and Luis Buñuel. Few novels have been tackled by multiple filmmakers of the stature of Renoir and Buñuel, certainly two of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived; I don't believe there are any novels as obscure as Mirbeau's imagined diary of a desultory housemaid that can boast that kind of an adaptational one-two punch. It's a unique situation and one that I think can tell us quite a bit not just about Renoir and Buñuel as filmmakers but the nature of adaptation itself. Which is what we're all here for. To discuss Renoir, Buñuel and the nature of adaptation itself. This is the first Movie Shelf to look at multiple films based on the same book and, honestly, there are probably few trios that would be worth the effort. I mean, I could talk myself into The Hunter, Point Blank and Payback, but let's be real: that wouldn't exactly be discussing the Rules of the Game auteur, Mexico and Spain's greatest filmmaker and a genre-bending critically-adored curio.

Well, let me walk that back a touch: describing Mirbeau's book as "genre-bending" might be overstating it. The critical consensus seems to be that Mirbeau's breakthrough works Diary and The Torture Garden are aesthetically radical works that pushed the novel's boundaries, but with Diary I just can't agree with that consensus about its stylistic elements. The Torture Garden, yes; but Diary is more or less a (non-torture) garden variety picaresque, one slanted in the satirical tradition of The Luck of Barry Lyndon. As far as its place in the pantheon of the style, it can't hold a candle to the classics like Jacques le Fatalist, Gargantua and Pantagruel and the ne plus ultra Don Quixote. I think it's fair to put it on that next level down with stuff like Lyndon, The Adventures of Felix Krull: Confidence Man and Gil Blas.

The critical tendency groups it in with the Modernist works that would follow in the coming decades, but truthfully it has more in common with the tradition of books I've just listed than with the furious aesthetic adventures of Modernist classics like The Sleepwalkers, The Man Without Qualities and Ulysses. Somewhat logically, it finds itself somewhere between the "psychological novel" of Madame Bovary (from 1856) and the Modernist works that blew up the form around the time of the first World War. It's bold but not that bold - because of its tendency towards psychological realism, it lacks the rough and tumble freedom of the early picaresque but at the same time it's not quite as accomplished as Proust or Mann - it certainly doesn't exceed the innovation and outrageousness of Tristram Shandy from a century and a half earlier.

If those two preceding paragraphs are so much gibberish to you, I can back up and reveal some of my own ignorance: I recently found out the word "picaresque" doesn't refer to the general style of the form. I had assumed the word was rooted in the episodic nature of the books as well as their tendency to follow characters who travel, often across landscapes and certainly through a variety of social strata. It turns out a "picar" is simply a "scoundrel" and that these novels are all theoretically about scoundrels, cads and jerks. I get it, even if Quioxte and Sancho Panza, Jacques and his master or Augie March don't quite fit the bill. Certainly, there's a gleeful amorality, or maybe invigorating moral freedom, that all of these books share apart from their episodic structure, diversity of social situations and wanderlust. But if we're strictly talking cads, the depraved and debauched, then Mirbeau's Célestine more than fits the bill.

The book is a collection of tales concerning the titular heroine Célestine R., a coquettish servant whose loose morals, impulsivity and yearning for wealth and power have caused her to work through fourteen households in two years. Not quite as impressively over-the-top as the Fat Boys stealing and eating sixteen cakes three times a week in Disorderlies, but I think we can agree very comparable. The work positions itself as her diary and picks up with her first day working for a provincial couple named the Lanlaires only to ultimately spend more time flashing back to her time in other households, digressing into stories of her youth and relating second-hand tales recounted to her by her friends and employers. To the extent that there's an over-arching plot, it concerns her courtship by and eventual marriage to a child rapist who wants to buy a cafe in Cherbourg and have her work there as a prostitute. This gentleman is the Lanlaire's valet Joseph and the book ends with them quitting their life as domestics and heading off to that military hub together.

Mirbeau portrays Célestine with a great deal of sympathy, but doesn't shy away from her tendency towards casual sex, theft, capriciousness and social-climbing. Her eventual coupling with Joseph seems to be the crux of Mirbeau's ideas: "A fine crime takes ahold of me just as a fine man does." She's a creature of sex and circumstance, held under the sway of powers around her that she can only partially comprehend. But that's not to say that Mirbeau doesn't use his novel to lay into class inequality and the repulsiveness of the privileged and powerful - it's every bit the kind of satirical takedown of cruel aristocrats and the undeserving winners in life that you might expect it to be. Its reputation is that of a "naughty" look at the grotesquely rich and undeservingly privileged and there's no denying that description applies, though it is a bit reductive. Mirbeau doesn't shy away from Célestine's ugly side, even if he ultimately displays more sympathy for her than he does for the moneyed villains that shit continuously and remorselessly on the little people beneath them.

The book's moral perspective can be summed up in the following sequence:

This evening, at dinner, when dessert was being served, Madame said to me, very severely:

"If you like prunes, you only have to ask me for them; I will see if I can give you any; but I forbid you to take them."

I answered:

"I am not a thief, Madame, and I do not like prunes."

Madame insisted:

"I tell you that you have taken some prunes."

I replied:

"If Madame thinks me a thief, Madame only has to pay me and let me go."

Madame snatched the plate of prunes from my hand.

"Monsieur ate five this morning; there were thirty-two; now there are but twenty-five; then you have taken two. Don't let that happen again."

It was true. I had eaten two of them. She had counted them!

Did you ever in your life?

I should mention that another reason the book can't quite achieve greatness is that Mirbeau paints himself into a corner with the "diary" concept and there are a number of off-model sections that utterly fumble Célestine's voice as a character and plainly read as Mirbeau's own words. In fact, when I first sat down to read the damned thing, I had an immediate feeling of "uh-oh" from his introduction, which reminded me exactly of Paul Cooney's description of Ian Flemming's moronic intro to The Spy Who Loved Me - I actually thought of Célestine as "Little Miss 'Not Unskilled in the Art of Love'" for the rest of novel. The idea is that both men came into possession of manuscripts that were "no shit, really believe me guys" written by sexed-up young ladies, who were definitely real people, and those manuscripts were then re-written and cleaned up by them, the noble men of letters.

But in the case of Le journal, this opening section is clearly intended as a plea from Mirbeau to get a pass on the book's undeniable inconsistency of tone and authorial voice, not to mention its digressions into places and subjects a woman like Célestine wouldn't know anything about. It all reads like "yeah, yeah, some of this clearly wasn't written by a chambermaid, what're you gonna do?" It's a cop-out and more than a little lame. Some of the off-model sections include an extended satire about a talented but social-climbing artist's tedious high society dinner party and a story about a gardener and his wife cruelly disallowed to have children by their employer, which weirdly shifts into third person. These sections include lines like "Man is nothing but surprise, contradiction, incoherence and folly" that are credited to characters other than Célestine, but appear so frequently that it seems a bit like that's just how this poor, orphaned, abused sexpot maid thinks and talks.

Tonal inconsistency aside, it's easy to see what attracted both Buñuel and Renoir to this book. They're two filmmakers who don't have a huge amount in common; certainly I don't think anyone would make a natural connection between their films without a source to bridge them, so it might be a little surprising that the novel feels like a good fit in both directions.* I can't see Renoir having taken on almost any of the other source novels from which Buñuel worked liked Galdos's Tristana and Nazarin or even Piere Louys's La Femme et le Pantin (which became That Obscure Object of Desire). The inverse might be possible with Buñuel taking on Zola or Gorky, but I guess this pointless speculation isn't particularly productive. Forgetting about adaptations, these just don't have much in common - there never would have been a Jean Renoir's The Milky Way, even while Buñuel's Rules of the Game exists and is called The Exterminating Angel.

Setting aside that Mirbeau had been a passionate and crucial critical advocate on behalf of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, it's not hard to imagine what attracted the painter's son Jean to the book: the humane satire of French social conventions and the foibles of the moneyed recall Rules of the Game, Renoir's fondness for adapting works by masters of French literature like A Day in the Country and La Bête humaine made adding Mirbeau's book to his collection a not-unlikely move, the book's excoriation of Rightwing nastiness deeply compatible with Renoir's Leftist humanism. For Buñuel's part, should I mention that one of the first episodes concerns a perverted old man using Célestine to indulge in his foot fetish? Buñuel shares Mirbeau's affection and critical attitude towards the debauched - they have a prominent spiritual resemblance when it comes to the collision of power, class, desire and fantasy.

The sociopolitical commentary is much more pointed than in either the Buñuel or Renoir films. It's filled with lines like the one talking about the relative lack of difference between the rich and poor, religious and irreligious: "All hypocrites, all cowards, all disgusting, each in his own way." Or endearingly cynical throwaway lines disparaging, say, the wonder and majesty of nature: "'Have you ever seen anything as stupid as a chestnut tree?" For sure, he puts the hammer down on nationalism: "And there is nothing like patriotism to get people drunk." It's a book that takes shots at a lot of things, a book that exists in large part as a vehicle for taking shots at a lot of things.

In cataloging France's intersecting traditions at the time of Anti-Semitism, hypocritical Catholicism and blood-thirsty patriotism, Mirbeau doesn't pull any punches when it comes to letting you know just how much horseshit he sees in them. He had been deeply affected by the contemporaneous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish artillery officer was unjustly accused of treason and got caught squarely in the cross-hairs of that traditional trio. Mirbeau had always been somewhat of an iconoclastic public intellectual, but the Dreyfuss affair apparently turned him full cynic. For that reason, the sociopolitical critique of his book plays much more directly and viciously than anything you'd ever find in a film by a warm humanist like Renoir or an elusive, deadpan artiste like Buñuel.

And speaking of hammering the shit out of targets, Mirbeau mentions numerous real-life figures over the course of the book and offers up stinging critiques either of them or on their behalf including Dreyfus, Emile Zola, Drumont and Voltaire - but he really saves his harshest harshness for a long-forgotten author named Paul Bourget. An at-first subtle and then full-on evisceration of Bourget runs throughout the novel, Mirbeau's disdain for Bourget being perhaps the novel's only constant presence apart from Célestine herself. It's one of those quirks that makes the novel age poorly and prevents it from attaining absolute greatness as Bourget is so 100% irrelevant now that all of the ire wasted on him feels silly since time itself has delivered a pretty thorough coup de grace to the man's reputation.

The only reason I'm dwelling on the Bourget-bashing is that it apparently finds its origin in the fact that Bourget wrote a pair of novels based on Mirbeau's life! I couldn't find any English translations of those books to compare them to the real stories, but Mirbeau suffered through a tragic love affair with a woman named Judith Vimmer and Bourget seems to have mined the romantic tragedy of a well-regarded public figure for a semi-fictionalized tale of passion turned sour. Ultimately, it's hard to begrudge Mirbeau his revenge, revenge which is just brutal - he attacks from every angle: smart characters offering condescending encouragement to Bourget, simplistic idiots offering him shallow praise, direct critique of his logical ineptitude and moral hypocrisy. But at the end of the day it all feels a little bit like Milhouse van Houten's analysis of Mad Magazine's satire "They're really giving it to that Spiro Agnew guy again! He must work there or something..."

I'm poking fun at the book a bit, but let me make clear that the pieces of it that work, really work - and Mirbeau has a huge talent for grotesquery. He includes countless unforgettable throwaway bits like Joseph's theories on how torturing ducks by jamming a needle in their brain makes them taste more delicious for dinner - that way they're seasoned with fear and anguish. Delicious! There's also a deeply shocking scene where the Lanlaire's neighbor Captain Mauger brags about how he will eat anything in the world, from flowers to insects to hippos, so Célestine challenges him to eat his beloved pet weasel, a shy creature that totally trusts and loves the Captain. She jokingly provokes him on the subject until he snaps the pitiful animal's neck and gobbles it down for dinner. Another layer that makes the scene so queasy is Célestine's self-conscious indifference to provoking the Captain to do something horrible - she's well aware she's engaging in a game that both she and the Captain will regret and later be nauseated by, but she does so anyway with an emotional distance that she is aware is fleeting. It inexplicably doesn't bother her now, but she knows it will. She does it anyway.

And the best sequence in the book climaxes in a scene in which Célestine laps up the bloody vomit of a beautiful young consumptive man whom she's been hired to care for and has fallen in love with. Filled with a passion to prove her love transcends her repulsion of his disease and even her fear of death, they make out until he pukes and then she swallows the bloody puke, licking it off of his face. The kicker to this sequence is a little epilogue immediately after the young M. Georges succumbs to his disease where she heads back to Paris, runs into an old friend and pops into a hotel for a quick bang. Mirbeau creates this swooningly romantic scenario where Célestine feels a transcendental passion for a doomed lover and then offers a truly disgusting proof of that love before undermining those swooning emotions with a scene where Célestine seems to almost instantly forget her Great Love in favor of some enthusiastic casual sex with another handsome dude. Was she affected in any meaningful way by her transcendental love? Or was it all just crazed bloody puke eating that doesn't mean anything at the end of the day?

Putting aside the off-model section where Mirbeau loses her voice altogether, one of Célestine's virtues as a character is that she's tough to pin down - contradictory, but in a believable way. She undoubtedly longs for wealth and power and rues the crummy hand she's been dealt in life, forced to live under the boot heel of piggish dilletantes, but at the same time she's not for sale. She turns down an offer to live with a rich old man under a "wink, wink" type agreement, she despises being used like a slut by the pompous son of an ecclesiastical conman, she finds true love with the consumptive and she ignores the matronly whore-mongers on the street who assure her she could make far more money with them than as a chambermaid. From another vantage, her "not for sale" qualities ring hollow as she submits to all manner of humiliation and insult as a servant, when she gives up her dignity and happiness just to survive - or when contrasted with her enthusiastic "debauched" and "perverted" (her words) liaisons with a parade of random men. Célestine's a great character - there's a lot there to dig into - so let's look at what Renoir and Buñuel decided to do with her. (Sad) Spoiler alert: she eats bloody vomit in neither movie.

 

* There's no good place to mention this in an already lengthy article, but one thing Renoir and Buñuel do have in common is a shared aesthetic modesty that's unusual amongst the canonized geniuses of le cinema - they're the medium's most style-free legends. Unlike Welles or Hitchcock or Ozu or Bresson, it would be nearly impossible to spot a Buñuel or Renoir film just by looking at a single frame - they're deeply unostentatious in their visual conceptions and have no signature "look." They eschew camera movements that call attention to themselves, they're never overly aggressive in their framing and mise en scene and they don't get cutesy and show-off with their production design. Their films are insistently plain...but let's not confuse that with a lack of precision, intelligence and genius in how their films are designed, composed and edited. There's a level on which any idiot can show off by having a really long tracking shot that goes over buildings and follows people then cars then, I don't know, a dog which goes into a discotheque. There's actually nothing aesthetically or intellectually special about a movie that appears to be made without any edits - that stuff is the equivalent of a really long guitar solo with a bunch of notes in it, the cinematic version of Yngwie Malmsteen. I'm not sure what metaphor I have for filmmakers who arrange actors with geometric precision within sterile landscapes and then have them stand very still or move through a bunch of striking poses while the camera is at some very low or very high or very tilted angle. Can I go with the cinematic Yngwie Malmsteen again? Everybody agrees he's a cheeseball, right? Bonus Malmsteen-points for any of these filmmakers who don't move the frame for minutes on end or track around very, very slowly for minutes on end. Anyhoo, Renoir and Buñuel cut that shit right out.

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