Comments on Diary of a Chambermaid by Michael Atkinson

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Openly, serenely delighted with how our own dreams can appall us, and how close movies are to that appalling dreaminess, Luis Bunuel may have been the greatest filmmaker of the first century. Certainly among the ten or twelve unassailable masters of the medium, he is the wittiest, the least sentimental, the most philosophically imaginative, and formally the most unceremonious. His career stretched nearly fifty years, starting with the silent avant-garde's last bomb-throwing gasp (the Surrealist anthem short Un Chien Andalou in 1928, devised with Salvador Dali) and culminating amid the death throes of international art cinema, his last masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) hitting the open air at the same time blockbusters began to wreck the popular market and turn moviegoing into a experience of childish spinal emergency. Luis released his grasp on us at just the right time-his quietly wicked, tipsy-Voltairean sensibility never had to do battle with the powers of Reagan-era slope-headedness. He never had to watch the idiosyncratic global presence he'd struggled so determinedly to reestablish in the 1950s become sidelined by market homogeneity.

It's just as well: from the beginning Bunuel stood outside history and fashion, and just as his flirtation with Surrealist dogma quickly became an individual vision more concerned with conscious human folly than with unconsciousness liberation, Bunuel's role as a culture producer always required the audience to acclimate to his worldview, never the reverse. It was a worldview fraught with contradictions, defined by patience and scorn, peopled with pious sinners and debauched saints, visually Spartan and yet spasming with bouts of the irrational. This was Luis's world-welcome to it.

Never commonly considered when Bunuel's masterworks are enumerated, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) is a simple yet bottomless movie, and the least that could be said for it in its relaxed viciousness and breathtaking confidence is that it suggests there are many more masterpieces in the Bunuel hopechest than anyone has yet supposed. Any clear-eyed toll-taking must include at least five of the terminally underrated Mexican films (El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, Nazarin and The Young One look today as incisive and pungent, if not as sensationally scalding, as the accepted classic Los Olvidados; Susana, A Woman without Love, El Bruto, Wuthering Heights, Robinson Crusoe and El Rio Y El Muerte would blaze like comets in anyone else's filmography.) Likewise, the last third of his career-from the scandal-magnet Viridiana (1961) to his final film-is more than a triumph of world-beaters. It is a run without peer in international cinema; even the normally overlooked Tristana, The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty make Bunuel's heavyweight contemporaries (Bergman, Fellini) seem self-inflated, ponderous, cognitively leaden and gloomy. Certainly, Diary of a Chambermaid requires critical rehabilitation, if not from malignance, then from neglect. Set on a French manor during the uneasy 1930s but as timeless as neighbor hate and forgotten injustice, the film pivots on Bunuel's favorite subject: men twisted inside like rope by the tensions of their own absurd desires, and by their preposterous presumption that they're worthy of their own obscure objects.

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