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Diary of a Chambermaid: The Criterion Collection

It's France in the 1930s, a place and time marked by growing nationalism, anti-foreigner protests, and, for the characters in the trenchant Diary of a Chambermaid, petty concerns, servant-master relations, sexual hypocrisy, lusty fetishes (one death involves choking on a woman's boot), bigotry, molestation, child-rape, and murder. It's here, employed as the titular chambermaid at the country estate of the eccentric Monteil family, that young and worldly Parisian Célestine (Jeanne Moreau) finds herself both an object of desire and, like director Luis Buñuel, an observer of a bourgeoisie class blind to its own growing decadence.

This is the second screen adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's novel (Jean Renoir did it first in 1946). Buñuel's 1964 version is not often ranked among the director's primary works such as Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bouregoisie. Nonetheless, this underrated comedy of manners redefines Mirbeau's 1900 novel with Buñuel's memories of his time in 1930s Paris, when right-wing extremists marched through the streets shouting "Down with the Republic!" and "Death to the Jews!" He acidly depicts the casual complacence of the French rural leisure class, characterized as little more than small, debauched primitives sheltered by privilege and patriotism. The oddball residents of the Monteil manor house sharply caricature Buñuel's dark sense of the world in miniature. Célestine, who aspires to become bourgeois and doesn't care what means she must use to get there, is little more than a passive observer until the climax, when she takes action by using sex to determine whether her Jew-hating lover did indeed kill a young girl.

The film ends not with justice triumphant but with the stinging irony of a nation marching through the streets toward right-wing brutality and leisurely fascism. Buñuel blends the humorous and the grotesque in a cutting satire that may strike viewers today as slow and melodramatic, but it is elegantly crafted, written, and acted — and demonstrably still au courant.

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This exquisite Criterion Collection DVD release offers a flawless, restored black-and-white transfer (2.35:1 anamorphic) mastered from a new 35mm print made from the original negative. The original French soundtrack comes with an English subtitle translation that's refreshingly easy to read.

Supplements include a 2000 video interview with screenwriter and longtime Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière. We also get the original theatrical trailer narrated by Moreau. Joining the disc is an insert with a breathlessly championing essay by The Village Voice's Michael Atkinson, and the transcript of a 1970s interview with a chatty, sly Buñuel. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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