“No feelings, no morals, no rights.”
Jean Renoir’s film Diary of a Chambermaid presents a dark vision of the melting of the class system in 19th century France. Beautiful Parisian Celestine (Paulette Goddard) is a lowly chambermaid, but with her looks and her wiles she’s determined to land a wealthy husband. When Celestine arrives at the country estate of the wealthy Lanlaire family, she quickly assesses the possibilities of her would-be suitors. Mr. Lanlaire salivates when he sees Celestine, but she realizes that he has no money of his own, and he’s under the thumb of his domineering, cold wife (Judith Anderson). Upstart neighbour, Captain Mauger (Burgess Meredith) lives openly with one of his servants, and he pursues Celestine. The Lanlaire’s son, George, heir to the estate–a sickly bitter specimen of the upper class–comes home for a visit, and finds Celestine thrust in his bedroom by his manipulative mother.
The Lanlaire family keeps a sizeable amount of silver stashed in the cellar. This treasure represents the Lanlaire family’s past glory of the pre-Republic days. Madame Lanlaire bitterly regrets the loss of the family’s power and status, and with her determined efforts to maintain old standards, she tries to keep the new order at bay. Her decision to dress up Celestine and offer her to George is reminiscent of the pre-revolution days when the noble classes maintained physical control over their serfs. Now firmly a child of the Republic, Celestine will not allow her “masters” to control her, and she rebels against her role in an attempt to create her own destiny.
Celestine is ambitious and determined not to be anyone’s tool. While she tries to wheedle some of the family’s silver from Mr. Lanlaire, and assesses just how much money Captain Mauger has hidden in his house, she also manages to stay independent. Sinister valet Joseph (Francis Lederer), however, also has his sights set on Celestine, and he watches Celestine waiting for his chance to claim her. Both Joseph and Celestine represent the new Republicans–vigorous and ambitious lower classes–reluctant to retain their old subservient roles and ready to grab the opportunity to better their social position.
While the rest of the village celebrates the Birth of the Republic, the Lanlaires offer a sober toast to the death of their past life. The Lanlaires who once were the neighbourhood ruling class are now alienated and disliked. Ironically and symbolically, the presence of servants to maintain domestic standards at the Lanlaire mansion threatens the very continuance of the life Madame Lanlaire has tried so hard to preserve. Ultimately, the film’s message is that the power to fight evil and to exact social justice is found in the physical strength of the proletariat.
Diary of a Chambermaid is based on the novel by Octave Mirbeau (author of the infamous Torture Garden). Renoir’s version of the story is lighter than the Luis Bunuel version made several decades later, but both film versions of the novel are excellent in their own right.