You are on page 1of 53


I am the only one who

doesn’t feel absolutely
satisfied with myself.
~Jean Renoir, 19451

Renoir ne se répète pas; il

avance encore.
~Daniel Serceau2

Octave Mirbeau à la sauce

~Film critic, 19483


Before Diary: Renoir’s Salute to France and “Ambiguous Propaganda”

The origins of Diary of a Chambermaid can be traced back to 1944, when Renoir

first met the people with whom he would eventually produce the film. Following the

success of 1943’s This Land is Mine, Renoir had been invited to make a propaganda film

for the Office of War Information (OWI) in New York in February1944. 4 Ultimately

entitled A Salute to France, the OWI engagement expanded to include a second, French-

language version called Salut à la France. It was through his work there that he met

1 Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir
2Daniel Serceau Jean Renoir, Filmo 12 (Edilig: Paris, 1985) 88.
3 Opéra 160, (9 juin 1948) 6. Cited from Laurent le Forestier, “L’accueil en France des films
américains de réalisateurs français à l’époque des accords Blum-Byrnes.” Revue d’histoire moderne et
contemporaine 51.4 (2004): 78-97, 96.
4 Janet Bergstrom “Jean Renoir and the Allied War Effort: Saluting France in Two
Languages.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 26.1 (2006): 45-56, 45.


Burgess Meredith and his then-wife, Paulette Goddard.5 These two films were conceived

as instructive pieces for Allied troops and French citizens, respectively, to illustrate that

“America admires and respects France and that our troops enter French territory as

friends and liberators” (Bergstrom 46).6 Together with writer/director Garson Kanin and

writer/actor Meredith, Renoir simultaneously filmed the English and French versions.7

Each dramatized Franco-Anglo-American ties among three soldiers of differing

nationalities who arrive at the conclusion they are all working toward the same great

goal, with no country being superior to another (Bergstrom 46). Renoir only directed; the

films were edited down by others into much shorter final versions (“Saluting France” 54).

Janet Bergstrom and Brett Bowles have both detailed the major and minor

conflicts over the course of the project to demonstrate the unique role these two

propaganda films played in Renoir’s career. Though Salut à la France was briefly

released in France8 right after the liberation, its “sunny portrait of tri-national solidarity”

bore no trace of “catastrophic collateral damage inflicted during the liberation of

northeast France” by the British and US forces (Bowles 65). Bergstrom and Bowles

maintain that this comparatively minor project remains important both as a means to

5 She had previously been married to one of Renoir’s idols, Charlie Chaplin.
6 Bergstrom 46. Also see Brett Bowles “Jean Renoir’s Salut à la France: Documentary Film
Production, Distribution, and Reception in France, 1944-45.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and
Television 26.1 (2006): 57-86, 60.
7 The producer, Philip Dunne, recalled that the “English and French scenes were directed one

right after the other […] Kanin directed the English version and Renoir the French version […]. In
fact, Renoir ended up directing both versions.” Cf. Bergstrom 47-48.
8 Bowles’s research finds very limited screenings for the film; it is likely that “it probably

reached an audience of no more than 75, 000” 61.


understanding the OWI’s misguided directives to help prepare for the Allied arrival in

France as well as to revealing Renoir’s own misgivings over performing such a task. The

films’ bland, bilingual messages of international cooperation did little to dispel the

stereotype of a pathetic France (Bergstrom 50). Renoir’s portrayals of national unity had

little to do with the need for vengeance, retribution or daily sustenance that preoccupied

France in late 1944. Given the state of affairs in Paris, Salut was ultimately an ill-timed,

ill-fitting piece of propaganda. The France in which OWI was screening its various

propaganda films in many ways remained the fractured France of La Règle du jeu: the

Resistance itself was plagued by implacable divisions and rivalries. In the Liberation’s

immediate aftermath, a propaganda war pitted the Gaullist groups against the Marxist-

Communist faction, with the two sides using competing newsreels to claim an almost

exclusive role in securing victory (Bowles 76). Renoir’s American-commissioned

narrative of the Allied invasion fell on deaf ears in the immediate postwar battle for

political hearts and minds (Bowles 76).9 As Bowles remarks, today one only need watch

Le Chagrin et la pitié to sense the divisions and violence seething among the French even

as they celebrated their freedom. Salut à la France did not offer the type of closure most

French wanted; rather, it re-hashed a tiresome message of international solidarity. “There

was much that needed to be forgotten,”10 observes historian Jan-Werner Muller, before

France could put itself back together (5).

9 As I noted in the previous chapter, Renoir had been reading about parallel divisions in the
French film industry in letters from his brothers.
10 Jan Werner-Muller, introduction, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the

Presence of the Past, ed. Jan Werner-Mueller (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).


Bowles ultimately assigns Salut à la France’s non-partisan ambiguity to Renoir’s

balanced view of the world. He writes that Renoir’s “self-reflexive brand of humanism

and instinctive suspicion of all ideological dogma were poorly suited to the kind of

exalted, single-minded discourse that effective propaganda required” (Bowles 68). By

not embracing a more explicit ideology, Salut à la France appealed to no one in

particular. Laurent le Forestier, who has researched the reception of Renoir’s American

films in France, connects Renoir’s “ambiguous nationality”11 onscreen (what I would call

specifically a Franco-American identity) to his films’ poor performance in postwar


In the context of Renoir’s Hollywood career, the unusual challenge of making

concurrent versions of A Salute to France echoed Renoir’s earlier struggles to walk the

line as a French emissary to American cinema. Bowles argues that Renoir was a “high

profile director whose artistic sensibilities undermined the effectiveness of his wartime

cooperation with government officials” (68). Indeed, Renoir ultimately experienced a

lack of creative control with the OWI similar to that of Twentieth Century-Fox.

Bergstrom notes how the mangling of the two films must have finally demonstrated to

Renoir that he could never be a proxy for the French cinema in America (“Saluting

France” 54). The unique arrangement of simultaneous, bilingual productions reaffirmed

the futility of trying to make one story appeal to two distinct audiences; it was the last

time Renoir would explicitly attempt such a task. By the time the OWI finished the final

11 Le Forestier 79.


cuts, he had already returned to Los Angeles to begin work on The Southerner.

Renoir’s failed effort at neutrality—and the subsequent ambiguity—of the OWI

films may be understood as an attempt to combine disparate cultures for the sake of a

common cause. Salut à la France’s inability to find its audience despite precautions

foreshadows many of the problems that would later arise with his interpretation of Diary

of a Chambermaid. Salut à la France and Diary of a Chambermaid both committed

several offenses: they confronted unsavory aspects of French national identity—the fall

of France and the failing Republic—for the wrong audience at the wrong time.

Reading Renoir’s Diary (1945-46)

The Second World War finally drew to a close in Europe in May 1945; Japan

surrendered in August. With the end of combat and subsequent re-opening of

international mail routes, Renoir re-established contact with his loved ones. He

encouraged his brother Pierre to come to the United States to work as an actor. In April

1945 he wrote, “C’est bien dommage que tu ne parles pas anglais. Les acteurs de ton

type manquent ici. Je suis sûr que tu aurais un grand succès à Hollywood et que Lisa [his

wife] y serait extrêmement populaire.”12 He likewise urged younger brother Claude to

come to Hollywood where he would learn new techniques to broaden his horizons for

future work (Lettres 194).

Alain Renoir was thriving in the U.S. Army, earning service awards for his

bravery in the South Pacific, where his quick thinking and courage under fire saved his
12 Jean Renoir, letter to Pierre Renoir, 12 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


entire platoon. “Ses lettres continuent à être très optimistes. Sur ses photos, il a

beaucoup changé. Le côté ‘bébé’ me semble avoir complètement disparu,” he wrote

Pierre.13 To his childhood friend Paul Cézanne Jr., he wrote in May 1945, “Je sais que les

miens en France n’ont pas encore une vie normale, mon gosse continue a se battre dans le

Pacifique. Pour moi, la vraie victoire sera le jour où je verrai Alain franchir le seuil de

ma maison et où, assis à la table, j’entendrai Jean-Pierre ou toi, ou Renée, parler de ces

mauvaises années au passé” (Lettres 184). The idea of bringing his entire family over

seemed preferable to the alternative pressures to return. His beloved childhood nanny

Gabrielle was already living next door with her husband; Alain returned at last in

December 1945. It was of little consequence that such reunions take place in Hollywood;

Renoir simply wanted his family together.

Professionally, Renoir was also hitting his stride; his filmmaking was proceeding

at its best pace since he had arrived in Hollywood. The Southerner’s surprising financial

and critical success after its release in August 1945 had proved his films’ viability to

American audiences and producers. His hard-earned confidence encouraged Renoir to

pursue an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel, Journal d’une femme de chambre.

Actors Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard agreed to star and co-produce after RKO

formally passed on the picture in May 1945. By this point in his Hollywood career

Renoir knew his professional future lay outside the major studios; he remained unfazed

by setbacks endemic to working independently.

13 Ibid.


Charles Koerner, le patron de cette entreprise [RKO], a finalement rejeté mon

projet du “Journal d’une femme de chambre.” Son désir d’avoir Paulette Goddard
le faisait passer sur bien des choses, mais la frayeur de mon scénario s’est
montrée plus forte […] Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith et moi-même avons
formé une petite société qui s’appelle CAMDEN […] Les agents de Paulette
peuvent nous trouver l’argent que nous voulons à condition que nous ayons une
distribution pour vendre le film et un studio pour le tourner […] En somme, les
problèmes pour les indépendants, et je tiens à en rester un, sont ici les mêmes
qu’ils étaient en France quand nous travaillions ensemble.14

The fact that Koerner doubted the viability of Diary only confirmed to Renoir that he was

on the right track. After all, few in the industry had first believed in The Southerner as a

potential artistic and box-office success.

Diary of a Chambermaid is one of the least-studied Renoir films, even among

those who do research on his Hollywood period. Inspired by a French novel and play but

shot in Hollywood with American stars from a screenplay with multiple authors, 15 the

film raises tangled issues of adaptation and translation. Renoir based his faith in Diary of

a Chambermaid on the viability of Franco-American synergy, which would be embodied

by Goddard’s ability to bring Renoir’s vision of Celestine to life; the film’s unexpected

rejection lay in the shifting sociopolitical postwar landscape in Hollywood and France.

Diary of a Chambermaid was not a status quo adaptation. By subduing Mirbeau’s overt

sexual motifs in favor of seething political violence, Renoir and his colleagues refused

the story’s most alluring aspect.16 For audiences, the film’s real surprise continues to lie

14 Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, 18 May 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.
15 The nearly two-hundred-page draft penned by Renoir is in UCLA’s archives. I have yet to
find the script that was actually shot. At any rate, Renoir’s script is very far from the actual film,
which leads me to believe that it went through at least one major re-write.
16 To some extent, the rejection of explicit sexual content had to do with the limits of the

Production Code, but Renoir also appears to have made conscious choices to de-emphasize sex from


in its deliberate transgression of expectations. On film, Diary of a Chambermaid became

a hodge-podge of stylistic registers and cultures swirling around uncomfortable themes of

power and class. As Renoir mused in an interview, “I suppose caste is what all my films

are about” (Interviews 165). Diary of a Chambermaid thus provided the director another

vehicle to explore his fascination with class. The sex comedy many Americans expected

(and perhaps secretly hoped) to see did not exist.

Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (1900) concerns an adventurous maid’s

risqué exploits with licentious employers as she tries to improve her social position.

Celestine has been forced into her career by a series of unfortunate family events; her

great beauty is her one advantage. She uses her powerful feminine charms to get gifts

and favors from her male employers, but the strictures of keeping up appearances always

prevent Celestine from ever permanently escaping her situation. None of her bourgeois

patrons will leave their wives to take up with the maid. Her diary recounts a series of

failed attempts to find romantic love that will also bring financial security and freedom.

The main story takes place during her tenure at the Lanlaire estate, where Celestine falls

in love with the owners’ consumptive son, Georges. At the same time, Georges’ father,

his neighbor Mauger, and a sinister valet named Joseph all pursue her affections.

Celestine ends up with Joseph, who has shrewdly saved enough money to open up his

own restaurant in Cherbourg, and the former servant takes on a new role as housewife

and barmaid. It is not the romantic love she hoped for, but at least she has found the

the first script draft.


stability she has craved all along. We are meant to judge all of these characters, but

Mirbeau cleverly uses the diary device to create a steady sense of sympathy for Celestine,

who emerges as the ultimate victim of circumstance.

Mirbeau wrote the novel during a turbulent period in French history. The Dreyfus

Affair divided the nation. Racism, anti-Semitism and questions of religion’s place in

society buffeted the still-young Third Republic. Anarchist terrorism threatened Paris

during the 1890s with regular, unprecedented bombings.17 It is against this background of

a challenged republic that we must understand the novel. A friend of Zola, a staunch

Dreyfusard and patron of the arts, Mirbeau explored the narrow space between satire and

tragedy in his writing. Mirbeau paid the steep fine levied against Zola for his article,

“J’Accuse,” and worked tirelessly to support wrongly convicted Jewish army captain

Alfred Dreyfus (Schwarz 361).18 Le Journal d’une femme de chambre draws explicitly

on this historical moment: the characters discuss current events. At one point in the

novel, a priest counsels Celestine on her reading habits: “Ce qu’il ne faut pas lire, ce sont

les livres impies […] les livres contre la religion, tenez, par exemple Voltaire […] ni du

Renan, ni d’Antatole France” (298).19 Mirbeau relentlessly mocks the narrowness of his

contemporaries with his own “livre impie.”

17 Cf. Howard G. Lay, “Beau Geste! (On the Readability of Terrorism)” for a complete
discussion of terrorism in 1890s Paris. Yale French Studies 101 Fragments of Revolution (2001): 79-
18 Martin Schwarz, “Octave Mirbeau et l’affaire Dreyfus,” The French Review 39.3 (1965):

19 Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (1900, Paris: Fasquelle-Le Livre de

Poche, 1971).


In a world of tight-lipped aristocrats, the diary format allows Celestine to remain

an astute, harsh critic of her employers even as she bows to their orders. Her bosses are

horrible Parisians and nasty provincial aristocrats. Of them all she exclaims, "Ah! Les

bourgeois! Quelle comédie éternelle! Ils sont tous pareils" (276). Each new patron

attempts to strip Celestine of her identity. One mistress insists on changing her name to

"Mary"; yet another dubs her “Marie” because she feels it more fitting for a servant.

Objective differences of class and gender aside, however, the characters share more in

common with each other than they know. Celestine’s strange attraction to Joseph is at

the crux of her dilemma; by the end she realizes, as he has insisted all along, that she is

“just like him.” The final pages present them together as two new members of the petite

bourgeoisie. For as much as they resent the Lanlaires, the maid and the valet aspire to

their own version of their boss’s well-off life. By giving the main voice to a

chambermaid, a person whose occupation is that of a fly on the wall, Mirbeau weaves a

tapestry of fin-de-siècle politics, personalities and mores.

The novel’s most tragic aspect is Celestine’s hopeless unawareness of the impact

the established social order has had on her trajectory. For all the means to introspection a

diary offers, Celestine never arrives at a true understanding of herself. This is most

apparent in her attitude towards her own sexuality. Her physical urges lead her to

conclude that she is simply a flawed woman, deserving of her lowly station in life: “C’est

autre chose que je ne puis définir exactement, qui me prend tout entière, par l’esprit et par

le sexe, qui me révèle des instincts que je ne me connaissais pas, instincts qui dormaient


en moi, a mon insu” (319). Since she relates to the world as a sexual object, Celestine

catalogues the people she meets as she does herself: mere incarnations of sexual desire.

Celestine warns the reader that her major fault is her complete helplessness when faced

with her employers’ desires: “Je serais la constante victime de mon désintéressement et

de leur plaisir” (20). Though sexually experienced, Celestine remains naïve to the real

causes of her dissatisfaction. She believes it is her fate as a servant to only experience

fragmentary emotional attachment: “un domestique, ce n’est pas un être normal, un être

social…c’est quelqu’un de disparate, fabriqué de pièces et de morceaux qui ne peuvent

s’ajuster l’un dans l’autre, se juxtaposer l’un a l’autre…c’est quelque chose de pire: un

monstrueux hybride humain” (187).

Carmen Boustani labels the dual nature of Celestine’s competing images of

herself the entre-deux, or commingling of public and private representation.20 Every

diary runs the risk of discovery and unintended readership, which cannot help but be

factored into the writer’s consciousness. Indeed, the concept of the entre-deux lies in the

very origins of Mirbeau’s text, of which Celestine the maid is the author as much as

Mirbeau: his preface tells us that Celestine gave him her diary to publish as he saw fit.

The intersections of public and private, author and diarist further underscore Mirbeau’s

view of the world, where "l’humain est un être de culture et non seulement d’instinct”

(Boustani 85). The maid’s only “choice” is that of working for the depraved Lanlaires,

the vile Captain Mauger (the Lanlaire’s neighbor) or Joseph. Celestine’s past and present
20 Cf. Carmen Boustani, “L’Entre-deux dans le Journal d’une femme de chambre,” Cahiers
Octave Mirbeau 8 (2001): 74-85.


affairs have all been limited by her surroundings and the wretched position into which

she was born. Celestine’s lowly social standing prevents her from running away, since

she has nowhere to go and no one to help her (the members of her family are all dead or


Unlike Celestine, the reader understands that the “instincts” she describes plague

every character, and that Mirbeau proposes them as symptoms of an oppressive society.

Captain Mauger, for example, eats anything, plant or animal. He tells Celestine “Quand

on trouve une bête, morte ou vivante, une bête que personne ne sait ce que c’est …on me

les apporte …et je les mange…je mange de tout” (101). The grotesque appetite provides

an obvious symbol of the perils of uncontrolled gratification, and his monstrous

consumption alludes to the rich who indulge their worst whims to the point of moral

bankruptcy. Celestine’s discovery of a large stash of pornography in Madame Lanlaire’s

dresser and the latter’s talk of her sexual exploits further reinforces Celestine’s opinion of

human weakness. “Un autre jour, je surpris Madame en train de raconter à une amie,

dans son cabinet de toilette, les impressions d’une visite qu’elle avait faite, la veille, avec

son mari, dans une maison spéciale ou elle avait vu deux petits bossus faire l’amour”

(136). Her conclusion that "‘la haute société est sale et pourrie” renders the maid’s

position even more sympathetic, since she must silently endure the foul environment

where even “ladies” turn their backs on morality (136). Mirbeau’s concept of warped

sexual relationships throughout the novel calls to mind similar notions of his

contemporary, Zola, whose characters’ sexuality is often an expression of society’s ills.


Renoir had also used these tropes in his own adaptations of Nana and La Bête humaine,

as well as in the figures of the eccentric Marquis de la Chesnaye and his lover in La

Règle du jeu; the presence of lust keeps everyone in their disastrous orbits.

The lone exception in Mirbeau’s depraved world is Joseph, whose hatred

originates in political rather than sexual frustrations. Celestine describes him as

“violemment antisémite," "pour la religion" et “las de la République qui le ruine et qui le

déshonore” (138). He gives impromptu speeches against “ce misérable traître Zola […]

[Joseph] englobe, dans une même haine, protestants, francs-maçons, libres penseurs, tous

les brigands qui ne mettent jamais de pied a l’église, et qui ne sont, d’ailleurs, que des

juifs déguisés. Mais il n’est pas clérical" (139). The novel’s climactic event is the

horrific rape and murder of a child in the town, blamed on “Jews” but which is really

committed by Joseph. In Renoir’s filmed version, we will see that the valet’s story arc is

greatly changed; Joseph becomes a stiff, menacing loner, rather than the slippery

sociopath of the novel.

The novel concludes with Celestine and Joseph behind the counter of their new

bar in Cherbourg where it becomes evident, through a change in her tone, that the couple

has ascended the social hierarchy. Joseph has softened in his demeanor, if not his beliefs

“il est pour la famille, la propriété, pour la religions, pour la marine, pour l’armée, pour la

patrie” (442). Celestine is a contented kept woman, having everything she needs to be a

proper little wife. Her final entries capture her ironic outrage about needing to change

maids four times in three months. She has quickly become the type of bourgeois she so


hated at the outset: while she hypocritically frets about the hired help, Joseph, now

disguised by the patina of property ownership, uses his back room as a meeting place for

the local pro-military anti-Semite groups. Maria Carrilho-Jézéquel concludes that hate is

a “structuring emotion” in the novel, and one that connects to Mirbeau’s denunciation of

French society (98).21

Though Renoir captures elements of this pervasive hatred, his filmed version

hides Mirbeau’s satire behind the more palatable subject of unrequited love. The

narrative amplifies the love triangle between Celestine [Paulette Goddard] and the men in

her life into the major focus. From the first scene, Celestine talks of her quest for true

love. The final scene captures her success as she escapes a life of servitude with her true

love Georges [Hurd Hatfield]. The constraints of both film length and the Hays Office no

doubt contributed to the much tamer script. Celestine’s persistent self-loathing and her

souvenirs of past lovers disappear, as do Mirbeau’s historically specific politics. Joseph

(Francis Lederer) is not the Bonapartist anti-Semite of the text. He is a dark, disgruntled

servant full of resentment over the Lanlaire’s humiliating treatment and undeserved

wealth. Yet his resentment never leads to political engagement, only to his desire to use

Celestine to complete his plans for a financially independent future. Lederer’s Joseph

affects a low-grade but constant terror, of the kind that would later make the actor perfect

for the role of Dracula.

Ostensibly less preoccupied with the novel’s examination of hatred and dynamics
21 Cf. Maria da Conceiçao Carrilho-Jézéquel, “Le Journal d‘une femme de chambre: satire,
passion et vérité” Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 1 (1994): 94-103.


between the sexes, Renoir’s film does maintain the novel’s conflict between servants and

their masters. With its uneven tone, tragicomic acting and simmering class warfare,

Diary of a Chambermaid does begin to resemble that other famously misunderstood

Renoir film, La Règle du jeu. And, similarly to that work’s connection to current events

in 1939 France, Diary of a Chambermaid’s exceptional staging and tone may be read as a

reflection of Renoir’s socio-political anxieties at the end of the war. Mirbeau’s story

takes place against a backdrop of impending social upheaval. For every character,

promises of liberty and love never materialize, which hints at the politics that create

devastating class difference (which are also evident to a degree in The Southerner). In its

depiction of explosive social upheaval, Diary’s recurrent dark mood directly contradicts

Faulkner’s belief that Renoir leaves behind politics for “a philosophy of idealism” in

America (Social Cinema 8).22

Diary was made under different circumstances than La Règle du jeu, but the

world at war’s end was arguably as fraught with socio-political tensions as it had been in

1939. (In fact, Renoir had first pitched Diary before settling on La Bête humaine in

1938, which would have made it a precursor to La Règle du jeu. It is unclear why he set

Diary aside.) He explained how Mirbeau’s vivid characters would come to life onscreen

in a 1938 letter: “Naturellement dans le traitement nous ne suivons pas du tout l’intrigue

de Mirbeau, intrigue qui d’ailleurs existe assez peu dans l’ouvrage primitif: Nous nous

sommes contentés d’utiliser certains personnages remarquables, et certaines situations de

22 Renoir and Dido would become naturalized U.S. citizens in 1946 (Bertin 230).


premier ordre à travers une histoire que nous avons composée, mais nous remettons la

suite de ces travaux à plus tard.” 23 In 1938 Renoir conceived of the Journal as a

counterpoint to his sweeping historical films, calling it "une aventure d’ordre moins

général que La Grande Illusion ou la Marseillaise” (Corréspondance 62). Unlike the

universal subjects of war and revolution in those two films, it was the specificity of

Mirbeau’s novel that interested Renoir in 1938.

Fig. 4.1 The opening shots: “Strange faces and filthy souls”

Producing the Diary

Diary of a Chambermaid went into production in July 1945, right before The

Southerner’s August premier. As with The Southerner, the preproduction of Diary of a

Chambermaid reflects a high degree of collaboration among the writers, actors and

producers involved. Renoir originally adapted Mirbeau’s novel into a screenplay from

23Jean Renoir, letter to Frank Rollmer (French co-producer of Grande Illusion and distributor
of La Marseillaise) 5 March 1938, Jean Renoir: Corréspondance 1913-1978 62.


the play by nineteenth-century playwright André de Lorde. There is one copy of Renoir’s

189-page script in UCLA’s archives; it stays close to Mirbeau’s text and bears little

resemblance to the finished film. Since Renoir was always one to have a hand in, if not

entirely craft, his scripts, it is worth noting that this time he handed over the reins to other

writers early into Diary’s preproduction.

Renoir’s script thus offers a starting point from which to approximate the final

cut’s points of departure. His version is more faithful to the novel’s plot until the ending.

(It might be that he followed de Lorde’s play, although the length suggests otherwise.)

Renoir maintains the structure of desire set forth in the novel; Celestine is the pivot

around which all male desire turns; she tries to take advantage of that structure as much

as she is able. Joseph’s hateful patriotism punctuates his scenes and is put on great

display in a climactic scene near the end where he riles up a crowd at his bar. Yet Renoir

has Louise, a fellow chambermaid who is relatively minor in the novel, come to rescue

Celestine from her life with Joseph—the two women kill Joseph in self-defense and

Celestine returns to Georges only to have him die in her arms.

The Renoir script closes with Celestine on the train back to Paris, where she hints

at her impending emotional recovery by striking up a conversation with a handsome male

passenger. Her closing words are “the country’s all very well for a while, you know, but

in the end one gets tired of it…” (script 189). Renoir also includes a flashback sequence

a little over halfway through the script; we see Celestine as a girl in her impoverished

family as photos in her diary come to life. We see her father die. We see her with a


lecherous grocer, an allusion to her first sexual experiences. We see Celestine with a

Parisian foot fetishist on her first job as a servant (notoriously depicted in Luis Buñuel’s

1964 adaptation of the book). Renoir’s script appears to rely on flashbacks as a way

around the difficulties of narration presented by the first-person diary format.

In Renoir’s telling, the story moves more slowly largely as a result of an early

subplot that develops a platonic relationship between Georges and Celestine (Georges

refers to her as a “sister”). When they finally become lovers, their plan is to run away to

the United States. Georges explains, “It’s a tremendous, very new country, where you

could start a new life…and where you could forget all the misery and unhappiness you’ve

always known” (154). This escape plan does not exist in Mirbeau’s text; it is perhaps an

interesting bit of autobiography. As in the novel, nobody except the vengeful Joseph sees

the far-reaching inequality between master and servant. He explains: “I’m no different

than the higher-ups, the rich ones, who stole to get their beautiful chateaus and their

fancy carriages. They stole and killed so that they could afford to hire someone like me

to slave for them” (178). Renoir imbued his script with Mirbeau’s specificity of time,

place and character while maintaining the melodrama (in the form of Joseph’s evil foil to

Georges’s gentle romanticism) that he saw as a necessary component of Hollywood


An undated copy of a journalist’s report found with the script in the UCLA

archives tells of Renoir’s goal to combine the best elements of Hollywood with emotional

realism. “American movies are much too refined these days, says Jean Renoir, the French


director. He says he thinks they need a husky dose of the old brutal emotion that

characterized silent pictures. ‘Let them be melodramatic, if need, be, but at least let them

be human.’ All this is imparted on the set of Diary of a Chambermaid, which Renoir is

directing. The picture, a nineteenth century French costume piece, is based on Octave

Mirbeau’s novel, but the story has been changed extensively for Hays Office reasons.” 24

The Hays Office was the enforcement arm of the Production Code

Administration, a censoring body created in 1934 to promote a specific morality in the

cinema. Bolstered by support from the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency (whose

members could be rallied to boycott films) the PCA ensured that no films were produced

with objectionable content. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America,

unwilling to cross such a powerful lobby of moviegoers, agreed to submit every film

produced to the PCA for certification that it was not in violation of the code.25 Under this

“voluntary” agreement, no picture could be released until it possessed an official PCA

certificate of approval. The code prohibited extra- and premarital sex, alcoholism, and

crime, although exceptions would be made if the characters committing these actions

were punished for their behavior and thus redeemed.26 Language was very closely

24 A carbon copy of a news report APN “advance for am of Sunday, August 19 from AP News
Features, Jean Renoir Papers.
25 Steven Lange, “Film Censorship in the 21st Century”
<> 24 April 2007.
26 The central tenets of the code were defined thus: 1. No picture shall be produced which will

lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be
thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the
requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.3. Law, natural or human, shall not be
ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
(De Grazia and Newman 34). Cf. Lange, “Film Censorship in the 21 st Century”
<> 24 April 2007.


monitored, not just for profanity, but for objectionable slang as well.

By June 1945, Renoir appeared worn out from his initial attempt to condense

Mirbeau’s racy novel into a coherent script that would pass muster with the PCA. The

director wrote his brother, "J’ai renoncé à faire le ‘screenplay,’ les complications dans

lesquelles nous nous sommes débattus m’ayant un peu bouleversé. Il sera écrit par

quelqu’un que j’admire énormément: Mme Anita Loos”27 (Lettres 189). Loos was

Goddard’s best friend (Goddard allegedly inspired the Lorelei character in Loos’s novel

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), so it is possible that she contributed to the script. I could not

find any evidence of this, however, beyond Renoir’s passing mention. Dudley Nichols is

also purported to have helped during the writing process, although Burgess Meredith is

the one who ended up with the sole writing credit on all documentation on file (title

sequence, PCA analysis chart, print advertising) for the film with the PCA.

In his memoir, So Far, So Good, Meredith recalls their working relationship as a

constant effort in translation of both language and technique: “When we wrote the script

he would fill me in, partly in French, and I would try to equate his ideas into English—

find the equivalent phrase […] in his films, Jean never wrote the actual dialogue. We sat

at his feet and heard what he had to say, and put that into screenplay form” (156).28

Meredith did not seem to pay very close attention to the details: he writes that the film

was adapted from a “playwright” named “Mirabeau,” conflating the sources and
27Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, Sr., 22 June 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.
28 Burgess Meredith, So Far, So Good: A Memoir (Boston and New York: Little, Brown and
Co., 1994).


misspelling the author’s name (155). In the division of labor, the Hollywood-savvy

Meredith tried his best to keep Renoir on task and under budget. He writes,

I was always constricted by budget problems. In America the ‘backers’ said, “It’s
all right for French films, but in America you’ve got to say it different!” Renoir
improvised on the set. Suddenly he would be off shooting a new scene he felt
was needed. I had the job of saying, “We have to get back on schedule, Jean!”
“No,” said Renoir, “what we have to do is to make a fine picture!” (156).

Such differences of opinion were part of collaboration for Renoir. He wrote

Meredith in November: “[O]ur story is powerful and I think you will find the just reward

of your stubbornness when you decided to rescue our enterprise from the RKO

shipwreck.”29 The Production Code Administration analysis chart’s plot summary (a form

required of every film) in late September 1945 nevertheless illustrates how far the story

had changed from Renoir’s original version: “the story ends on a note of hysterical joy

and triumph. Georges and Celestine are to be married. Monsieur Lanlaire declares his

freedom from [his wife’s] tyranny. Joseph’s body lies bedraggled in the mud—and

beside it, Celestine’s diary.”30 A detailed letter from the PCA Office on July 14, 1945

suggests that the script’s more explicit sexual themes had, however, remained intact just

prior to shooting:

29 Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. My
30 PCA File for Diary of a Chambermaid, Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library,

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles.


Fig. 4.2 PCA Correspondence regarding changes to Diary [Margaret Herrick Library]

The dissolves the letter refers to do not appear early on in the finished film; they may

have been the flashbacks to Celestine’s previous employers’ abuses. Renoir’s script does

contain several risqué lines that disappear in the finished film. Joseph tells Celestine “my

blood is on fire because of you” (script 141). Nevertheless, until other intermediate drafts

are found, a series of gaps on the timeline between June and September of 1945 remain.

Since even the ending on file with the PCA is not the actual film’s ending, the source of

these revisions remains a mystery.

The Completed Film

Renoir, Meredith and the other unknown screenwriters had all left their marks on

Mirbeau’s story. Nevertheless, from the outset Diary of a Chambermaid quickly

establishes the two important story elements that will collide during the narrative’s

climax. In the opening sequence, Celestine’s good heart clashes with Joseph’s dark soul


as she defies him at the train station to bring along fellow maid Louise. The subsequent

scene follows Joseph as he drives the new employees to the Lanlaire’s. The carriage ride

winds through the small village square and into the sprawling estate to highlight the

extraordinary sets and capture a mood of desolation and decrepit luxury. Renoir’s script

describes it as “a huge, depressing, badly neglected place—but one which actually could

be very lovely were it not so totally lacking in life” (script 24). The superficial

opposition between the sleepy countryside and the vivacious chambermaid sets up the

film’s central antagonism: Celestine will be a fish out of water at the staid Lanlaire’s.

Figs 4.3 and 4.4 Elaborate sets of the town and Lanlaire’s estate

Upon reviewing the final cut, Renoir admitted that he had secretly intended this to

be a vehicle for Goddard as the titular chambermaid: “This picture was not a ‘star’

picture, but actually an ‘ensemble’ picture, with Paulette playing the most important part.

And I must admit that my ambition was to make a ‘star’ picture with her,” 31 he confessed.

Goddard obliged her director on both counts. She uses the dual nature of Celestine as
31 Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


both object and subject to her advantage throughout the film. The audience clearly

understands why she fascinates the rest of the cast. Goddard inhabits the role as

alternatively aggressive and weak: she enjoys becoming the object of Georges’s desires

even as she shrinks from Joseph’s powerful gaze. Her sexy makeover at the hands of

Madame Lanlaire makes her happy. Though she is doing the bidding of a woman she

loathes (Madame Lanlaire is using Celestine to keep Georges at home), the maid makes

the transformation her own as she entertains Georges. She enjoys torturing Captain

Mauger and Monsieur Lanlaire with her charms, but is defenseless against Joseph’s more

serious threats.

Fig. 4.5 Joseph introduces Celestine to the silver, a symbol of the Lanlaires’ unearned wealth.
Because of Celestine’s coy nature, violent moments pepper the film when the men

do not get what they want. Unanswered sexual advances frustrate belletristic Captain

Mauger during a conversation in the garden. Out of control, he pushes Celestine up

against a corner of the otherwise expansive yard. Renoir amplifies the claustrophobic

sense of the shot by leaving the animal cage in the foreground and keeping the two


figures tightly framed behind it to “trap” Celestine in the frame and the now

superimposed cage.

Fig. 4.6 Mauger’s overwhelming urges

The motif of entrapment continues even in romantic contexts, where Celestine appears

similarly dwarfed by her surroundings in the vast, decaying chateau. After her

transformation into Georges’ plaything, Renoir reintroduces her in a long shot. She is

tiny next to the ornate objects and patterns of the bedroom, as if she is but one statue

among a trove of expensive decorations. As she faces Georges, her shadow seems to be

breaking for the door. In a single shot Renoir reveals the terms of Celestine’s existence:

a woman trying to make do with her feminine charms in a humiliating situation.


Fig. 4.7 Celestine after her makeover

Like the square dance in Swamp Water or the wedding celebration in The

Southerner, the Bastille Day celebration near the end of Diary of a Chambermaid

provokes a crisis by bringing characters together for an explosive confrontation. The

sequence contrasts the collective pleasures of the festival with the worst of human desire:

Joseph takes the Lanlaires’ silver, murders Mauger and meets his own subsequent death

at the hands of the townspeople. Only after the community purges itself of the rotten

elements is Celestine finally free to pursue the man she truly loves.

The sequence begins as the camera sweeps over the crowds gathering in the town

square. Mauger is skipping happily along with Celestine and Louise, who are free for the

evening’s festivities. A military parade briefly enthralls the crowd. Renoir fixes the

camera on this public display of order and power for several counts to heighten the

contrast with the mayhem that will follow.


Fig. 4.8 Mauger (foreground) dances among the town’s revelers on his way into the festival

Fig. 4.9 The military parade through the town square

The undisciplined movement of the revelers packed into the town square visually

opposes the majority of the film’s sequences, which are set in the austere halls of the

Lanlaire’s chateau. The festive chaos immediately follows the precise military procession

to further underscore the tenuous illusion of order among the citizens that will be

completely destroyed in Diary of a Chambermaid’s final moments.

The violent climax is the consequence of Joseph’s attempted escape with


Celestine and the Lanlaire’s silver. The valet has menaced the Lanlaires into giving him

their precious silver; he has murdered Mauger when he finds him returning from the fair

to get more money to spend on Celestine; and he has bullied Georges into submission.

Once Joseph returns to the fair to take her away, an emboldened Celestine begins to

denounce Joseph’s true intentions and give the stolen silver to the crowd. Shocked by

Celestine’s declaration, the townspeople grow angry and begin to move in on the

carriage. In a rapid sequence of cuts, Renoir moves from a medium shot of Joseph to a

shot in which he is entirely absorbed by the crowd moving as one giant entity to swallow

him up. At last, the camera cuts from Joseph’s lone, dead body in a quick reverse shot to

capture the crowd’s reaction to its own brutality. It is a remarkable frame, one that

recalls Renoir’s similar visions of collective violence in Swamp Water and The

Southerner, or even the aristocratic mêlée and accidental murder in La Règle du jeu. This

scene appears nowhere in the book; it seems to have originated in Renoir’s script (which

also kills off Joseph), though even there Bastille Day is not the setting for Joseph’s


32In his script, Louise comes to rescue Celestine in Cherbourg and stabs Joseph with a knife
when he tries to stop them.


Figs. 4.10-4.12 Joseph’s (in tuxedo, top) demise at the hands of the crowd; the crowd’s stunned
reaction to their own violence.

The sharp movement from festivity to violence and then the final frames of a

romantic reconciliation between Celestine and Georges lends a discordant rhythm to the

end of the film. As opposed to the more formulaic melodramatic fight scenes between


individual good and bad characters in Swamp Water and The Southerner, Diary of a

Chambermaid’s climax pits one individual against a mob acting on Celestine’s behalf.

She reveals Joseph’s plan to take her away in order to rally the entire village to her side;

they oblige because they don’t want to see her leave, rather than out of clearly established

spite for Joseph. Their desire for her has led to mob justice on the national holiday that is

supposed to commemorate the birth of justice, human rights and equality under the law.

Celestine’s avenger is nameless—we do not see who exactly killed Joseph, no one can be

blamed (or praised). The only closure offered is the revival of Celestine’s fairytale

romance to wealthy Georges, who is now free of his parents. Serceau observes that

ultimately “La violence et la cruauté, l’esprit de possession et de revanche triomphent

plus que jamais" (Filmo 88). The intensity of Diary’s climax becomes a shocking

counterweight to the playful scenes of celebration that precede it or the amorous closing

moments that follow it.

“Very badly received”: Diary’s Troubled Reception at Home and Abroad:

Diary of a Chambermaid neither falls within the gentle strangeness of the

sharecroppers’ world in The Southerner nor the intentional theatricality of This Land is

Mine or Salut à la France. Any discussion of Diary of a Chambermaid thus demands

close analysis of the terms of its reception—who watched this film and what did they

think of it? Judith Mayne writes of “the need for more specific, local studies, where the

focus [is] less on large theories that can account for everything, and more on the play and


variation.”33 Diary of a Chambermaid offers one such opportunity to draw a variety of

conclusions from a single film. American critics did not recognize the riotous belle

époque France they expected to find, and French audiences did not understand why

Hollywood was the place Renoir chose to make this film at this time. “Par quelle

aberration mentale […], Renoir a-t-il voulu tourner précisément en Amérique le sujet qui

lui tenait le plus à coeur et surtout qui pouvait le moins se traiter hors de France?”

wondered Bazin.34 Despite the film’s dissolute premise, Renoir maintained his typical

“reluctan[ce] to condemn a character” (Boudu 39). Diary is a portrait of people behaving

badly, but everyone has their reasons.

American Reactions

When Diary of a Chambermaid was released in early 1946, Renoir believed he

had corrected the most problematic cultural references after a preview screening in the

late fall of 1945. He reported to his colleagues: “Our preview was very successful. The

Manager of the Academy, a 20th Century-Fox Theatre in Inglewood, said it was the most

successful preview he’s had for over a year.”35 At least one person in another preview

audience, however, disagreed with this positive assessment. “There was laughter and

kidding applause in unwanted places, while dead silences greeted sequences obviously

intended to amuse,” wrote a critic for The Hollywood Reporter.36 Renoir was unfazed by

33 Judith Mayne, “Paradoxes of Spectatorship,” Graham Turner, ed., The Film Cultures Reader
(London and New York: Routledge, 2002) 45.
34 Bazin, Jean Renoir 87.

35 Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith and Paulette Goddard, 7 November, 1945, Jean

Renoir Papers.
36 JDG, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 January 1946, Special Collections, Margaret Herrick


reactions to the advance screenings: “After the first preview, I cut a little of Francis and

certain other things which caused the public to laugh […] now, they still follow it with

passion, but they do not laugh at the wrong moments.” 37 Renoir had not quite realized the

extent to which his blend of humor, fantasy and history would not translate onscreen to

American audiences. In 1958, he concluded that the film had been the victim of false

expectations: “it was very badly received, mainly because of its title. People expected to

laugh their heads off at a movie with Paulette Goddard [but] thanks to television I’ve

made a great deal of money out of it.38 I thought that I had made a film for the cinema; in

fact, without realizing it, I’d made one for television” (Interviews 77).

The polarized advance reaction to the film printed in a January 1946 issue of The

Hollywood Reporter set the tone for the American reviews and suggests that the movie’s

failure was due to much more than its misleading title. Diary of a Chambermaid seemed

awkward to most, plain awful to few, and an exemplary piece of innovative film art to

still fewer. The dividing lines were again those of cultural stereotyping: Hollywood

melodrama opposes French realism, and subtle artistry undermines slapstick comedy.

Every review noted aspects of the film Renoir had planned, but rarely did they interpret

these as he intended. A kinder reviewer stated:

It is good to see an independent motion picture organization exploring territory

off the beaten track of make-believe material even though the result is not wholly
satisfactory. [It] is a bizarre tale of foibles and passions in the French provinces,

37 Jean Renoir, letter Meredith and Goddard, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.
38 Gilcher notes that even in its theatrical release, “all in all, [it] was not a bad showing, but no
better than average” in terms of profits (411).


with uniformly good performances and sharp, moody direction by Jean

Renoir. The missing element is clarity of purpose; the film does not quite make up
its mind between stark melodrama and comedy of manners, and these two tones are
sometimes discordant in combination […]

The mixing of styles was evidently intentional, because it is reflected in the

characterizations. This screenplay […] makes none of the unusual distinctions
between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. […] the refusal of Meredith
and his fellow workers to compromise with picture-making conventions has
resulted in an intelligent and imaginative film which more than makes up for its

I cite this and other reviews at length to illustrate their consistent focus on the film’s

fundamental dissonance. In no way—even for those who appreciated Renoir’s efforts to

portray real, flawed personalities—did Diary’s appeal lie in its integration of multiple

cultural influences as in The Southerner, or even Swamp Water. To the contrary, many

more reviews merely dismissed the film as an unnecessary exercise in translation. A

review entitled, “Diary sad attempt at period comedy: embarrassing to all who took part,”

demanded to know who had ever thought it a good idea:

Strange is hardly a strong enough adjective for the entirely misguided

entertainment that has been attempted by Benedict Bogeaus and Burgess Meredith
around the household of the Lanlaires in the post-revolutionary France of 1885.

Equally in doubt is that American audiences will agree with and accept much of
what French director Jean Renoir offers under the guise of comedy [….]
Meredith accepts solo responsibility for the screenplay, which was from a novel
and a foreign play […] didn’t anybody see the rushes? And surely Bogeaus or
Meredith might have realized that those touches of “social significance” in the

39 Otis l. Guernsey Jr. review, 24 June 1946, Herald Tribune, Special Collections, Margaret
Herrick Library. The review continues to note that all characters “ are a mixture of good and bad,
grotesqueness and dignity, which makes them singularly individual and realistic people. Unlike the
picture itself, the roles gain rather than lose by the vacillation. Renoir’s understanding of his medium
is evident in his creative staging. When the mood changes from amusing interplay to sordid violence,
the film’s otherwise leisurely atmosphere is torn to shreds.”


script are ill-placed and consequently misfits. 40

For such critics, essential differences between French and Americans explained the film’s

strengths and weaknesses. The problem lay in the perception that Renoir, Meredith, and

Bogeaus had strayed too far from their respective roots. Americans should not try to

make French films any more than the French should shoot Westerns:

The transition (from French to English) is certainly the most important factor in
drawing a line on its entertainment values. This is an odd yarn, the type done so
well by the French-and so falteringly by almost anyone else […]
To casual filmgoers unversed in a tendency of the French to measure their
successful films in terms of stark realities, Diary is inclined to be too morbid,
especially in these days, when escapism is still a term bandied about by the
Hollywood cinemoguls. […] this is after all, very much the Continental type of
yarn. Once doesn’t, conversely, expect the French to epitomize the old American
west in their own picture-making.41

For these audiences, the story is distinctly French with its moody, recurring emphasis on

class politics and doomed love rather than the lighter “escapism” the major studios

produced. That many critics zeroed in on Diary’s oscillating tones, moods and styles also

reflects the underlying changes in Renoir’s approach to genre. Melodrama and realism

proved complementary in his previous efforts, but the addition of physical comedy to a

romantic drama led Diary’s structure to collapse under the weight of too many devices.

The general consensus on Diary of a Chambermaid’s failure to realize a balance

between cultures did not always preclude an appreciation of the film’s novelty. One

critic allowed:

40 JDG, review, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 January 1946, Special Collections, Margaret
Herrick Library.
41 Kahn, review, Variety, 30 January 1946, Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library.


Interestingly turned out but strongly foreign-toned for American audiences.

In this background has been woven a typically French tale […] both heavy drama
and overtones of high comedy.
Jean Renoir approaches plot and characters from a French standpoint and
holds to this course throughout his direction. He has painted a colorful pattern of
French life, concentrating upon characterization and the thoughts of France of last
century, but sometimes disregards American taste in entertainment. 42

The unbalanced representation of cultures convinced many American critics to simply

describe Diary of a Chambermaid as a French film in English. To narrow the gap

between the two cultures, marketing materials used Goddard to sell the picture as a

bawdy romantic romp. As she peers over her shoulder in one advertisement, a page torn

from her diary explains that she is going to get her revenge on men.

42 Unsigned review, Daily Variety “Film Preview,” 28 January 1946, Special Collections,
Margaret Herrick Library. Also, Charles Ryweck, review, Motion Picture Daily, 30 January 1946.
“The result is, one the whole, an eminently satisfying entertainment that should reap its share of robust
grosses. Renoir has directed superbly the script by Meredith.’


Fig. 4.13 “Men have always used me—now I’m going to use men…”
[Margaret Herrick Library—Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]

In the film, however, she never comes close to avenging past abuse; Celestine’s low

social position enables her to make Georges fall in love with her, but she returns the

favor. Each relationship invalidates any attempt at real revenge.


Fig. 4.14 Trade ad for the film: copy reads “No wonder why a like Diary of a
Chambermaid is destined for the Big Dough of ’46 from U.A.”
[Margaret Herrick Library—AMPAS]

Fig. 4.15 Trade magazine ad [Margaret Herrick Library—AMPAS]

The misdirection of the advertising campaign more broadly signals the confusion


among competing postwar Hollywood production trends. Film historian Robert B. Ray

argues that the postwar period brought about as big a shift in Hollywood as the sound

change had been in the late twenties (131).43 Gone was the combat film, the patriotic

home front story; producers turned to adaptations of classic books and plays. These were

safe, recognizable, and endless sources of entertainment.

Indeed, Hollywood’s dominance made its movies seem mere applications of some
given definition of the cinema itself […] for the mass audience, a film departing
from the Classic Hollywood model would not seem like a film at all. The whole
structure of the American film industry, therefore, favored gradual, conservative
evolution. No single other act is more important for an understanding of the
movies from 1946-1967” (Ray 130, my emphasis).

The U.S. film industry’s response to the war’s end was even more difficult than its initial

reactions to America’s entry into it. The OWI’s and PCA’s spheres of influence had

rapidly shrunk in the wake of victory, but the majority of filmmakers had yet to propose

alternatives. Selling Goddard’s playful sex appeal and the promise of romantic comedy

was perhaps a way of fitting the film into the more recognizable mold of escapist fare that

had dominated screens during the war (including melodrama.) But Ray notes that even

just after the war, “The classic Hollywood movie had been based on a pre-WWII

America that now seemed remote. The problem was how to respond to the new situation

with its strange mixture of continuity and change” (Ray 133). Diary of a Chambermaid

begins to make more sense if we consider it as one of the first postwar releases to capture

the “strange mixture.”

43 Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1985).


Diary of a Chambermaid anticipates the gap between history and cinema Ray

describes as a fundamental issue in postwar Hollywood. The film’s convoluted layers of

romance, violence, class, and politics depart from the straightforward classical

Hollywood film narrative of the war years before American movie audiences had

acclimated to such new territories (this may be why it found its true audience later on

television). As in Renoir’s previous American films, Diary’s setting abandoned

cinematic tropes typical of the time: Renoir’s France was not the France of artists, lovers

and romance any more than his South was one of happy plantation slaves and beautiful


French Reactions

In France, meanwhile, the postwar film industry was laboring to move beyond the

memory of war by focusing on subjects far removed from issues of reconstruction or

recrimination. Janet Bergstrom notes, “Filmmakers in the post-war period [,..] had a hard

time depicting French national and individual identity, particularly when dealing with

contemporary subjects.”44 For many directors and producers (though certainly not all),

the cinéma de qualité constituted one way out of French cinema’s postwar impasse.

Larger-budget literary adaptations aimed for impressive artistic spectacle; the tradeoff

was the loss of the critical intensity Renoir and his peers had generated in the 1930s.

Diary’s French release in July 1948 thus led several critics to praise Renoir’s

44 Janet Bergstrom, “Emigres or Exiles? The French Directors’ Return from Hollywood,”
Hollywood and Europe: Economics, Culture, National Identity: 1945-95, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
and Steven Ricci (London: BFI, 1998) 88.


attempt to capture the unseemly parts of human nature as an antidote to the self-

glorifying efforts of many contemporary French directors. In 1952 Eric Rohmer restated

his impressions of the film: “Je ne cache pas ma secrète prédilection et que je considère

[Diary of a Chambermaid] comme l’un des films les plus personnels de Renoir" (38). 45

The darkness lurking beneath a comic veneer resonated with timely emotions:

J’y vois d’abord une somme de mille motifs antérieurs et l'amateur de cruauté,
assez raffiné toutefois pour ne se point satisfaire d’une violence tout extérieure
[….] Le Journal d’une femme de chambre est peut-être le seul film à ma
connaissance qui nous découvre si limpidement, sans le secours d’aucun
commentaire ou autre artifice, cette sorte de sentiments qu’on aime enfouir au
plus profond de soi-même—non seulement l’humiliation refoulée, mais le dégoût
même ou lassitude que l’on a de soi—que l’audace d’un tel sujet ne peut
apparaître qu’après réflexion (39).

Though he did not make an explicit connection to broader historical events, Rohmer’s

identification with “repressed humiliation” and “self-loathing” in Diary reflects an

appreciation of cinema’s ability to resonate with unspeakable aspects of life. It was

exactly these uncomfortable themes that turned many who had expected comedy away

from Diary of a Chambermaid. The Cahiers group especially, more familiar with

Renoir’s past (and still awaiting his return), found in the daring film Renoir’s potential to

redeem himself for his previous, mundane American work.

In his unfinished book on Renoir, Bazin later conceded that to criticize Diary’s

overall lack of external realism is to miss the director’s point: “Il n’y a pas dans toute

l’oeuvre de Renoir de film qui présente davantage la liberté d’invention et de style.”46 In

45 Maurice Schérer [Eric Rohmer], “Renoir américain,” Cahiers du cinéma 8 (1952): 33-40.
46 Bazin, Jean Renoir 89.


his refusal to condemn the film according to his common benchmark of how well it

“discovered the world,”47 Bazin would appear to be moving toward a more versatile

critical paradigm. Great admirers of his work, Truffaut and Rivette told Renoir in a 1954

interview, “As far as we’re concerned, it’s very good, and we might even prefer it to La

Règle du jeu” (Interviews 22). Yet I would argue that the Cahiers critics’ public

recuperation of Diary indicates the fixity of their cultural expectations. Bazin’s defense

ultimately suggests Renoir wasted his time trying to adapt a French text for Americans

who would never understand his stylistic innovations; Bazin never denies the dichotomy

between French craft and Hollywood constraint.

More recent French critics try to fit Diary of a Chambermaid into a broader

pattern of Renoir’s work in Hollywood. Raymond Durgnat refers to the film as the

“spiritual twin” of This Land is Mine (239). But if This Land is Mine is focused

propaganda about the success of contagious conviction, Diary of a Chambermaid remains

a work haunted by the past, a nightmarish re-vision of a France irrevocably divided by

class and arbitrary mores. It is the type of society that would foster the conditions for the

collaborators of This Land is Mine or the degenerate aristocrats of La Règle du jeu. For

each of the characters, the Revolution is a failure—the fallen aristocratic Lanlaires refer

to Bastille Day as “a funeral.” They wield their only power in twisted relations with the

hired help. Lacking any real freedom, the lower classes advance only by theft, murder or

47 Cf. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976).
For Bazin, “the truly realistic filmmaker […] was always more interested in discovering the world
through cinema than in creating a new cinematic world (or worse, speaking their minds) in images
taken from reality” (170).


seduction. For everyone in Mirbeau’s world, the Republic’s promises of absolute

freedom and equality ring hollow. Bazin thus distinguished Diary of a Chambermaid

from La Règle du jeu by calling it a “farce tragique” where the latter was a “drame gai”

(Renoir 89). The servants originally attempt to get ahead through sheer hard work (a nod

perhaps to the notion of the American Dream), but the rigid French class structure

demands more illicit initiatives.

Renoir himself did not quite know how to explain Diary of a Chambermaid’s

fundamental unevenness. As he was writing the script in 1945, he wrote a friend, "Étant

toujours optimiste, j’espère que ce film jouera dans ma carrière américaine un peu le rôle

que Le Crime de Monsieur Lange avait joué dans ma carrière française."48 Like those

two previous works, Diary of a Chambermaid evokes the complex, often uncomfortable

connections between political power, class, and sex. In May 1946, two months after the

film’s release, Renoir knew he had not reached his goal: “Ici, je viens de passer une

période de confusion. Mon film […] a été assez mal accueilli, surtout par les critiques.

Ça n’est pas un échec financier, mais c’est peut-être un échec moral.” 49 Was the “moral

failure” due to the waste of talent (his own and his colleagues’) on a wrongheaded idea?

Did Renoir regret his compromises on the initial screenplay once the critics had spoken?

The director’s explanation remains unclear, but the admission of failure emphasizes the

extent to which Renoir had hoped for a much different reception.

48 Jean Renoir, letter to Leon Siritzky, 14 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.
49 Jean Renoir, letter to Pierre Lestringuez, 11 May 1946, Jean Renoir Papers.


Diary in the Context of the Liberation and Blum-Byrnes Agreements

From inception to completion, Diary of a Chambermaid demonstrates that

although Hollywood was moving toward a period of uncertainty and flux, it still afforded

more opportunities for Renoir than the French alternative. He had wanted to work with

Goddard and Meredith, which would have been impossible in France, given his stance on

dubbing as well as logistical issues. He had wanted to make Mirbeau’s novel into a film

at a time when French colleagues were pressuring him to make another Grand Illusion.

By the time of Diary’s release in France, however, Renoir had long since

distanced himself from the types of films his former French colleagues were now making.

Of director Jacques Becker (one of Renoir’s former assistant directors) he wrote: “J’ai vu

son film, Goupi Mains-Rouges, qui m’a semblé très bien, mais un peu ennuyeux. Ça m’a

l’air aussi puéril que ce que l’on fait a Hollywood, mais beaucoup plus prétentieux.”50 If

French film was now becoming as tiresome as Hollywood fare, why return?

The increasing disenchantment with his former colleagues may be traced back to

a series of awkward meetings Renoir had with a French film industry representative in

late 1944. That December, Renoir had met with Pierre Blanchar, the French actor elected

president of the newly formed Comité de Libération du Cinéma. The CLC’s purpose was

to help guide the French film industry’s transition back to peacetime. Blanchar arrived to

50 Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, Sr., 17 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


discuss the question of postwar trade between French and American cinemas with

knowledgeable expatriates Renoir, René Clair, and Julien Duvivier. Their talks raised a

range of issues; Renoir was especially concerned about the CLC’s stance on dubbing. In

letters to Blanchar after their meeting, Renoir explained his thoughts on translation.

Firmly on the side of version originale, Renoir was adamant that if either cinema were to

find its postwar market abroad, it would be in its native tongue: “je crois que le succès

des films français en Amérique tien au fait que ces films sont parlés en français,” he

wrote in December 1944 (Lettres 163). “Rien n’est dangereux pour une nation en

convalescence comme de se laisser aller à s’habituer a ce sous-produit qu’est le film

doublé” (Lettres 164). Films had to be “honest”; that is, in their original language, to

preserve the “artistic integrity” Renoir believed was the right of every filmmaker. It also

dovetailed with his convictions about audience tastes: Americans wanted to hear

authentic French in French films. If they wanted to hear English, Renoir’s logic went,

they would just watch American films.

The poor postwar reception of Renoir’s dubbed American films, which were now

being shown to French audiences—especially the case of This Land is Mine51—compelled

him to weigh in on the matter of dubbing again in April 1945 (as he was writing of Diary

of a Chambermaid). This time he took a more strident tone against the French film

industry’s handling of Hollywood pictures, having learned of a new French enterprise

headed by former collaborators specifically created to dub imported American films into
51 This Land is Mine premiered in France on 10 July 1946 with the first batch of American
films, along with Duvivier’s The Impostor (1944). See le Forestier 85.


French: “mais enfin tout cet ensemble de choses se situait dans un climat qui n’était pas

précisément celui de la France démocratique que nous espérons.”52 As Renoir’s letter

suggests, many in the French film industry struggled with their own version of épuration

as they tried to resume production free of collaborators.

Distance had given Renoir a different perspective than those French who had

remained behind. As the Diary of a Chambermaid production began, he explained the

shift: “Je pense que je vais rester encore un peu ici. Je commence tout juste à faire à

Hollywood des films dans lesquels je peux apporter un peu de ma personnalité.” 53

Having spent the war in relative luxury among Americans, Renoir lacked the perspective

to make the overtly contemporary films his critics were demanding—and he had already

had enough experience with propaganda to know better than to try. The director

appeared surprised that French film officials preferred to return to more comforting

visions of the past on- and off-screen. In the spring of 1945 Renoir recounted in

somewhat pathetic terms Blanchar’s penchant for reminiscing in a letter to his brother


Quelque chose de triste et de miteux s’attachait à leurs [the French] pas,

empêchant qu’on les prenne très au sérieux. Les Américains qui les rencontraient
[the French CLC group] étaient anxieux d’apprendre des choses sur la Résistance;
sur la lutte contre les Allemands; sur la bataille de Paris. Au lieu de cela, au cours
d’un banquet, lui et Charles Boyer, dans de longs discours, se sont mis à évoquer
leurs débuts d’acteurs à Paris; les années de conservatoire et leurs repas dans des
restaurants du Quartier Latin.54

52 Jean Renoir, letter to Jean Benoit-Lévy, 12 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.
53 Jean Renoir, letter to Olwen Vaughan, 3 October 1945, Lettres 198.
54 Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, Sr., 17 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


The bravado and nostalgia in evidence at the CLC meeting in Hollywood masked a

reality of which Renoir was all too conscious. Having learned of the extent of French

collaboration in the cinema during the war, he refused to commit to a return in July 1945:

“tout cela me dégoûte un peu, et j’aimerais aller travailler en France le jour où le cinéma

sera entre de nouvelles mains.”55

Renoir’s reluctance to return to France did not preclude his interest in world

politics or advocacy. Though the director repeatedly skirts the issue of his political

involvement in subsequent memoirs and interviews, evidence from the archives indicates

that Renoir remained engaged in political activities during and after the war. He

remained informed about the injustices suffered by Spanish citizens under General

Franco’s oppressive regime, the plight of displaced war refugees everywhere,56 and pro-

Soviet groups. Documents in the archives include United Nations briefs about the

humanitarian crisis in Spain. In September 1946 Renoir was contacted to be part of the

Common Council for American Unity’s advisory committee for Radio and Motion

Pictures. The invitation explains the Council’s mission as:

[being] for the purpose of furnishing the radio and motion picture industries
reliable information and advice regarding

1. Foreign language groups in the United States

2. Other minority groups
3. Foreign countries and their peoples.

55 Jean Renoir, letter to Louis Guillaume, 2 July 1945, Lettres 193.

56 In May 1945, he had given a reason that resonated with his humanitarian involvements for
staying in Hollywood a bit longer: “Je ne pense pas qu’il soit opportune de rentrer trop vite: moins il y
aura de personnes a nourrir là-bas, mieux ça vaudra.” Jean Renoir, letter to Randolph Weaver, 14 May
1945, Lettres 186.


“dialogue and other matters”

[….] to prevent misrepresentation of any group or people and encourage films and
programs promoting inter-group understanding and American unity and
championing the ideals and tolerance and One World.57

The 1946 file also contains the lengthy “Report on the Activities of the National

Associates at the Security council of the United Nations,” which provided an update of

“The Fight against Spain.” It is not clear which association forwarded the materials for

what purpose, but it is notable that Renoir did not give up his political interests.

The issues of dubbing and translatability arose at the very point in time when

policymakers were debating the broader issue of how to renew US film trade with

Europe. These concerns bleed into the poor reception of Diary of a Chambermaid. As

the French government continued to sort through the postwar political rubble, the debate

over the film trade between Hollywood and Europe that would culminate in the May 28

1946 Blum-Byrnes Agreement (which set quotas for American film imports and

established French-only programming for four weeks of every quarter as part of

reconstruction efforts to protect the weakened industry) came to express a host of deep-

seated fears. The discussions, ostensibly about trade quotas, raised implicit questions of

national identity. Jean-Pierre Jeancolas writes, “In what we might call the Franco-

American cinema war […] [t]he episode of the Blum-Byrnes Agreement which dealt with

the reopening of contact between the French and American cinemas after the break
57Memo to Jean Renoir, dated September 1946 in response to letter from Gerald Kean, 29
September 1946, Jean Renoir Papers.


imposed by the Second World war and the Occupation, is a particularly tense moment,

[…] setting the French against the Americans but also at war among themselves.”58 The

diplomatic efforts to protect French cinema symbolized general anxieties over


Laurent le Forestier’s recent research on the postwar French reception of

American films (including Diary of a Chambermaid) made by French directors abroad is

a concise example of the complex cultural dynamics Jeancolas observes, and that Renoir

seems to have noticed throughout his discussions of dubbing films and returning to

France. By introducing clear parameters to what would otherwise be an overwhelming

field of research, le Forestier concentrates on the “double nationalité” that overshadowed

the release and review of exiled French filmmakers’ work (79). To foreground his study,

le Forestier re-examines the effects of the 1946 Agreement. Viewed as a David-and-

Goliath struggle between war-torn French cinema and the immense Hollywood backlog,

the anticipated Agreement created antipathy (and at worst, bias) in French viewers’

relationships to American films as early as 1944, according to le Forestier. Blum-Byrnes

was the inevitable concession that the French knew would have to be made in order to

resume trade. Le Forestier thus contends that “la période ‘Blum-Byrnes’ du cinéma

français commence presque deux ans avant la conclusion de ces accords,” or as soon as

members of the French film industry began to debate the future (80).

58 Jean-Pierre Jeancolas “From the Blum-Byrnes Agreement to the GATT Affair,” Hollywood
and Europe: Economics, Culture, National Identity: 1945-95, eds. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Steven
Ricci (London: BFI, 1998).


In the fraught postwar moment, the French cinema needed an enemy against

which it could define itself (Le Forestier 97). French critics thus viewed the lackluster

American films of the three famous French directors in exile (Clair, Duvivier, and

Renoir) as clear evidence of how the Blum-Byrnes Agreement would dilute their national

film product. Le Forestier’s analysis demonstrates that French critics had become

particularly wedded to the notion of realism as the sine qua non of French cinematic

excellence (97). For French audiences, Renoir’s foreign American films arrived in Paris

just as the revised 1948 Blum-Byrnes Agreement removed more barriers to American

screenings, leading to a perceived “invasion” among many French policymakers and

intellectuals. Compared to Clair and Duvivier, who were at least now back on French

soil making French movies, Renoir’s only screen presence was his American films,

released among dozens of other Hollywood film premieres: “les derniers films américains

de Renoir sortent encore à un mauvais moment, au deuxième trimestre 1948, période de

surdiffusion de la production américain” (le Forestier 95).


In the recurring debate surrounding the perils of “filmed theater” versus “filmed

literature,” Renoir’s films have always stood as examples of cinema’s transcendent

possibilities vis-à-vis adaptation, especially for the proponents of auteurism. Bazin cited

Renoir’s version of Madame Bovary as an exemplary novel-to-screen adaptation because

it captured the spirit of Flaubert’s text through Renoir’s exclusively cinematic vision. By


the early 1950s, Bazin observed that the novel had come to be an acceptable source for

the cinema even as the theater was shunned: “S’il est devenu relativement commun dans

la critique de souligner les affinités entre le cinéma et le roman, le ‘théâtre filmé passe

souvent encore pour une hérésie" (129).59 But Bazin also insisted that if directors were

careful, they did not need to sacrifice the advantages of adaptation to pursue an ill-

defined purity. He continued: “En tout cas, si un certain mélange des arts reste possible,

comme le mélange des genres, il ne s’ensuit pas que toute mixité soit heureuse. Il est des

croisements féconds et qui additionnent les qualités des géniteurs, il est aussi des

hybrides séduisants mais stériles, il est enfin des accouplements monstrueux et qui

n’engendrent que chimères” (88). As a novel-to play-to film project, Diary falls into the

category of “hybride séduisant mais stérile” in Bazin’s schema.

Dudley Andrew has stated that long-running debate over the advantages and

disadvantages of film adaptation is based on the concept of two broad categories, the

practice of direct “borrowing” from an existing text, and the practice of “intersection,” or

a loose reinterpretation of an existing text that captures its spirit rather than its letter

(“The Well-Worn Muse”60 11). In the latter, the “original is allowed its life, its own life,

in the cinema” but the result is “neither innocent nor simple” (Andrew 12). Diary of a

Chambermaid pushes the limits of both types of film adaptation. Its language, its

59 “Pour un cinéma impur: défense de l’adaptation,” Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (1958. Paris:
Editions du cerf, 1990).
60 Dudley Andrew, “The Well-Worn Muse: Adaptation in Film History and Theory” Narrative

Strategies: Original Essays in Film and Prose Fiction, ed. Syndy M. Conger and Janice R. Welsch
(Western Illinois University, 1980).


narrative, and its style are neither the “borrowing” nor “intersection” described by

Andrew. Why a French film in English? Why eliminate Renoir’s scenes of the

protagonist’s past, which would better explain her harmful behavior of the present? Why

the elaborate, theatrical sets instead of the outdoorsy realism of The Southerner?

Renoir’s decision to convert a lesser-known French novel into an American film

production for consumption in the immediate postwar vacuum continues to inspire

discussions about the director’s intentions. Martin O’Shaughnessy wonders “whether

some of the jarring moments in the film were not in fact a consciously engineered

collision between Hollywood convention and the seriousness of the subject-matter. The

pastoral naiveté of the villagers with their stories of wishing trees, the go-getting attitude

of the heroine and the tacked-on romantic happy ending suggest mockery of the dream

factory and its products” (176).61 The notion that Renoir intentionally meant to subvert

Hollywood norms with a combination of its worst clichés is interesting; however, given

the circumstances with the Production Code, Blum-Byrnes Agreement and Renoir’s

stated ambitions for the film in 1945, I believe that Diary of a Chambermaid should be

considered a flawed Franco-American endeavor rather than a biting satire of the

Hollywood institution. O’Shaughnessy calls attention to details that perhaps represented

poor artistic decisions, but not for the purposes of disparaging Hollywood.

Rather than debate whether or not Renoir’s film is a failed adaptation, it is much

more useful in this case, as Andrew proposes, to examine the attempted adaptation’s

61 Martin O’Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000).


implications by asking “how does [it] serve the cinema?” (14). Indeed, the significance

of Diary of Chambermaid reaches beyond the realm of film trivia and into broad changes

in postwar national cinemas. Edward Benson thus corrects Christopher Faulkner’s

dismissal62 of the film by noting its importance: “[Diary of a Chambermaid] is a

corrosively pessimistic projection of Renoir’s view of French society after the war. It is

highly stylized […] but stylization should not in and of itself lessen its worth, nor does

that necessarily make it less historically specific” (Benson 356).63 Diary makes the most

sense when it is viewed as an event that came between the success of The Southerner and

the end of the war. On the one hand, American audiences had finally embraced his

talents; on the other, he was now free to return home. Diary of a Chambermaid

encapsulates the opposing directions in which Renoir was being pulled by the war’s end

and presaged the general shift away from standardized fare.

Diary of a Chambermaid challenged audiences’ desire to ignore divisions within

social relationships. The generally confused presentation of “Frenchness” in Diary of a

Chambermaid reflects tears in the social fabric that, as the film’s characters repeatedly

insinuate, are the result of the Republic’s misguided mission to grant rights to all citizens.

For the French in particular, it undermined the glory of the Revolution and Republic. If

film is a “powerful medium for the transmission of historical and political myths that,

frequently, soften or obscure the most brutal or unpalatable of historical truths even as

62Faulkner terms the film “frivolous”. Cf. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir 126.
63Edward Benson, rev. of The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir, by Christopher Faulkner. The
French Review 62.2 December 1988: 355-356.


they give rise to compelling visions of the national past,” then it is even more powerful

when it refuses to soften its subject matter (Green 6). 64 Joseph’s brutal death is a stark

reminder of every individual’s capacity for wrongdoing. As Renoir told a journalist in

1956: “Many people believe, for example, that the French Revolution is just a matter of

Bastille Day. In fact, however, the French Revolution started a hundred years before and

has not yet ended—it is still going on” (Interviews 62).

Renoir’s view of history is of a piece with his original vision for Diary of a

Chambermaid as a commentary on the pitfalls of easy satisfaction, be it political,

physical or economic. Valid or not, this message did not raise morale, nor did it

memorialize the heroic exploits of the Resistance; his refusal of a strictly French identity

must have represented a disappointment for those who wanted to welcome him back to

France. Renoir’s film merits continued study not only as a fascinating, if imperfect,

portrayal of interconnected individuals, but also as a work at the crossroads of postwar

trans-Atlantic relations.

64 1946’s La bataille du rail’s focus on heroes involved in an active form of resistance

(sabotage) as opposed to This Land is Mine’s intellectual treatment (focus on Lory’s moral dilemma)
connects to Green’s thesis as well. La bataille du rail was seen as advancing a more heroic image of
the Resistance whereas This Land is Mine was perceived as a misrepresentation, despite their
otherwise similar subject and themes.


You might also like