FOUR 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 hollywoodienne. ~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, Frenchlanguage version called Salut à la France. It was through his work there that he met


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

Papers. Daniel Serceau Jean Renoir, Filmo 12 (Edilig: Paris, 1985) 88. 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.
3 2


FOUR 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

She had previously been married to one of Renoir’s idols, Charlie Chaplin. 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.



FOUR 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 MarxistCommunist 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).
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).


FOUR 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 France. 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

Le Forestier 79.


FOUR 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 He

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

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

Jean Renoir, letter to Pierre Renoir, 12 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


FOUR 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.



FOUR 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
Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, 18 May 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. 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
15 14


FOUR 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.


FOUR 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.”

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): 79100. 18 Martin Schwarz, “Octave Mirbeau et l’affaire Dreyfus,” The French Review 39.3 (1965): 361-372. 19 Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (1900, Paris: Fasquelle-Le Livre de Poche, 1971).



FOUR 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


FOUR 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
Cf. Carmen Boustani, “L’Entre-deux dans le Journal d’une femme de chambre,” Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 8 (2001): 74-85.


FOUR 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 disappeared). 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.


FOUR 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


FOUR 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 Cf. Maria da Conceiçao Carrilho-Jézéquel, “Le Journal d‘une femme de chambre: satire, passion et vérité” Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 1 (1994): 94-103.


FOUR 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

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


FOUR premier ordre à travers une histoire que nous avons composée, mais nous remettons la suite de ces travaux à plus tard.”

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

Jean 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.



FOUR 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


FOUR 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 films. 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


FOUR 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

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.


FOUR 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
Jean Renoir, letter to Claude Renoir, Sr., 22 June 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. Burgess Meredith, So Far, So Good: A Memoir (Boston and New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1994).
28 27


FOUR 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:

Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. My emphasis. 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


FOUR 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

Jean Renoir, letter to Burgess Meredith, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers.


FOUR 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


FOUR 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


FOUR 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 murder.32

In 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


FOUR 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


FOUR 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
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


FOUR 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,
Library. Jean Renoir, letter Meredith and Goddard, 7 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. 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).
38 37


FOUR 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 weaknesses.39 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
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.”


FOUR 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:
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.


FOUR 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.

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


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


FOUR 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 belles. 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
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.


FOUR attempt to capture the unseemly parts of human nature as an antidote to the selfglorifying 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). 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 46 45

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


FOUR 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
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).


FOUR 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 49

Jean Renoir, letter to Leon Siritzky, 14 November 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. 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

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


FOUR 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
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.


FOUR 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 Claude: 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 53

Jean Renoir, letter to Jean Benoit-Lévy, 12 April 1945, Jean Renoir Papers. 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.


FOUR 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 proSoviet 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.
Jean Renoir, letter to Louis Guillaume, 2 July 1945, Lettres 193. 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.
56 55


FOUR “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 deepseated fears. The discussions, ostensibly about trade quotas, raised implicit questions of national identity. Jean-Pierre Jeancolas writes, “In what we might call the FrancoAmerican 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
Memo to Jean Renoir, dated September 1946 in response to letter from Gerald Kean, 29 September 1946, Jean Renoir Papers.


FOUR 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 Americanization. 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-andGoliath 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).
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).


FOUR 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).

Conclusion 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


FOUR 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 illdefined 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

“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).



FOUR 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

Martin O’Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000).


FOUR 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
Faulkner terms the film “frivolous”. Cf. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir 126. Edward Benson, rev. of The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir, by Christopher Faulkner. The French Review 62.2 December 1988: 355-356.
63 62


FOUR 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.

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.



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