A few years back, I dived into the French produced films of Luis Buñuel. My eyes were bombarded with images and ideas, so condensed and constant as to feel exhausted and exhilarated after each film. Even films that seemed at first more straight forward (That Obscure Object Of Desire, for example) had hidden, unconscious depths that played on my mind for weeks afterwards. Yet one image from the collection of his canonical films still returns to my mind’s eye at unusual moments, not least because it seems almost inconsequential in comparison to more famous images created by the director. This image isn’t Catherine Deneuve’s flowing, blonde hair draping onto a brothel bed, a group of bourgeoisie wandering in a never-ending road or dinner guests eating whilst sat on the toilet. It’s of the corpse of a child in woodland, her legs covered in snails.
The image in question is from Buñuel’s 1964 film, The Diary Of A Chambermaid; a relatively straightforward film for the director and lacking the overt surrealism that cemented him into the collective eye. Based on the novel by anarchistic libertine, Octave Mirbeau, the narrative follows a new maid called Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) who takes up residence in the country house of an eccentric, troubled family. She indulges the various male employers’ needs and fetishes which range from simple flirtation to leather boot fixation. The abrasive gardener with fascist leanings, Joseph (Georges Géret), is most enamoured with her, however, though this does not stop him violently murdering and raping a little girl on the estate. Determined to prove his guilt in the crime, Céléstine tries to plant evidence and have him charged but the man’s political leanings in an age of rising fascism allows him freedom and the film ends in Joseph’s new café in Cherbourg as a fascist march goes by.
The film is essentially about the violence and fetishism that goes side-by-side with hatred. There are so many subdivisions within the film through its variety of characters, however, that to generalise about its intention can undermine its detail. The main theme is of course fascism; the rise of fascism, the hatred and hypocrisy of fascism and all that contributes to its growth. It may be for this reason, especially in our current era, that I find the image in question so poignant, so disturbing and yet so in touch with the land too. The central murder at the heart of the film is never fully seen but is instead abstractly portrayed. Joseph is taking his cart through the woods when he comes across Claire (Dominique Sauvage). She has been wandering through the woods collecting snails and eating blackberries. He offers her a lift but she refuses and goes back into the woods. He carries on his way but thoughts are clearly beginning to circle within him. He checks the surroundings to make sure no one is around before leaving the cart and running into the forest after her.
Buñuel cuts to an obvious symbolism, first a hog running in the forest and then a baby rabbit before cutting again. This time the image is stark and not strictly chronologically measured as clearly some minutes pass between the cuts. It now shows the girl’s legs. She is intermingled within the bark and bracken, blood covering her skin. Most essentially is the way Buñuel films this image. Snails are making their way slowly across her legs, escaping from their basket. It is this image that is Buñuel’s most unnerving. There’s so much potential reading into it, some of which is horrific (the slimy trail being left on her legs etc.), that it’s surprising to find it not last longer. Though, such is the nature of the scene, it’s likely that its short length is for reasons of censorship. There’s an intriguing relationship to place in this image too, a disturbing naturalism to the relationship between violence, the body and the rural. The snails crawl over the dead girls legs like they were just another branch or log and the legs are filmed as if part of the forest. She becomes one with the soil through the violence committed against her. For all of its blood and soil wailing, this is the hypocrisy of fascism; the only blood in the soil will ultimately be that of the innocents that their ideology kills.
Buñuel has had a noted love on insects and invertebrates since before his filmmaking began. His image of ants rummaging around in a hand in Un Chien Andalou (1929) is one of his most famous. Ants are in this film too, crawling over a glass shed which is quickly smashed by an incoming piece of rubbish from the film’s aggravating neighbour. Buñuel once said that “I’ve always found insects exciting” and this interest has been the subject of a number of academic papers with far more detail than required here. The strangeness of insects and animals generally in The Diary Of A Chambermaid creates the potential symbolism – especially of a butterfly literally obliterated by the shot of rifle – but I return again and again to the snails making their way over the dead girl’s legs. It reflects the quiet perversity on display throughout the whole film, the brushing aside of every moral fibre with an unrepentant violence. But there’s also a sense that the land will grow over everything, even the frustrations of those isolated by their social status in the country houses; those who ultimately enable such fascism through mere boredom. As Céléstine suggests “It’s strange, how the country always seems sad. – I guess, people don’t have much fun here.”