NEW YORK TIMES, October 6, 1982

‘Céleste,’ a Memoir of Proust

By Vincent Canby

wp94cf93db.jpg The film, an exceptionally interesting first feature by Percy Adlon, a German documentary fimmaker, is spare and almost minimal in style. Yet it comes close to being Proustian in its meticulous attention to details of sound, light and movement, as well as the details of a daily routine that prescribed exactly which route Céleste was to follow to go from kitchen to bedroom and back.

...The film also possesses a lot of Céleste Albaret’s modesty, humor and impatience with convention. It is not about a writer writing but about a rare friendship, in the course of which each person learns to respect the other’s particularity.

In one moving scene, Proust carries on coquettishly with Céleste, declaring that the only reason he never married has been because he was waiting for Céleste. This prompts her to ask if he makes a difference between carnal love and platonic love. Proust snaps back, “I don’t know what you mean.” He tells her stories about society, male brothels and food. She tells him about her childhood.

Mr. Arndt is a most convincing Proust, dandyish and precious on occasion, but also capable of surprisingly ferocious emotion. Miss Mattes, who is best known here for her fine performances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Jail bait” and Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek”, becomes a woman of beauty and stature, truly “la belle Céleste” as Proust called her. It’s quite a leap from the vicious teenager of “Jail Bait” and the hard-luck, slightly simple-minded hooker of ‘Stroszek’ , and she accomplishes it with infinite grace.wp295baa83.jpg

Mr. Adlon has created a very special, unusual work.


Céleste – A Mysterious Passage

By Tom Milne

Percy Adlon, a German documentarist making his feature debut, might be forgiven the two or three shots in which speeded-up motion and a fisheye lens momentarily ruffle the tranquillity of CELESTE (Artificial Eye). As he himself says, “When you try to make something pure, someone always wants it to be purer." A pity, all the same, in that Adlon has very nearly brought off the perfect kammerspiel. Based on the as-told-to memoirs of Céleste Albaret, a simple country girl who came into Marcel Proust’s orbit as the wife of his favourite taxi-driver and remained to tend him virtually single-handed through the last nine years of his life, it is a conversation piece in which what is said -- and more importantly, what is not -- conjured great frescoes for the imagination, delineating everything from ambiguous emotions to those glittering social gatherings that formed the groundwork for A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Set entirely within and around the famous cork-lined room, the film takes waiting and silence as its twin keynotes. At the beginning, in a shot stretched to almost Straub-like agonies of expectancy, Céleste (Eva Mattes) is discovered sitting in the kitchen, patiently waiting for the bell that will end the silence broken only by muffled coughing from Proust’s room, and at last allow her to begin preparations for his breakfast ritual. For us, however, lingering outside the cork-lined confines, the silence is assailed by a rebellious cacophony of natural sounds (the recording is direct throughout), as clocks tick, nerves tingle, wood creaks and dishes clatter.

The opposition is a trick, of course, but one which prepares for the silences and sounds that mark the relationship which gradually unfolds as Céleste and Monsieur Proust (Jürgen Arndt) talk away his sleepless hours. There are moments of intimacy, like the troubled night when Marcel tries to ease the loss of his beloved maman by asking Céleste to tell the story of her own last glimpse of home, and the echo of her homesickness from those far off days sends the camera winging off to scan her memories with placid shots of the old mill where she was born, the church where she was married, the wooden gate from which her mother watched and waved her last farewell.

There are, too, the moments of neutrality when Marcel becomes Proust in his professional capacity. Summoning a quartet of musicians to his apartment for a private audition of a César Franck sonata in which he had been struck by ‘a mysterious passage,' he invites Céleste to enter and share his pleasure. They sit listening together with the graceful intimacy of husband and wife, but she is not privy to the fact that this mysterious passage is at that very moment undergoing its final fictional metamorphosis into la petite phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. Nor, as is evident from her astonishment, is she sensitive to the emotional impact of the music (‘What wonderful thoughts before dying...’) that makes him suddenly burst out with the frightened request that she must never allow anyone to give him an injection.wped02aaac.jpg

But there are also moments when barriers are erected and intimacy repulsed. After a flirtation of gossamer tenderness in which Marcel claims that he has remained a bachelor because she is the only person he could ever have married. Céleste hesitantly asks whether he makes a distinction between carnal and platonic love. Her reward is a hostile glare as Proust snaps, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ Respecting the reticence Céleste Albaret stoutly maintained that she never saw or heard anything untoward during her years with Proust, the film remains silent about his sexual preferences apart from one early sequence where, hitherto bedridden, Marcel determines to make one more foray into his beloved salons. Excited as a child embarking on a midnight feast as he struggles out of bed, calling on Céleste to prepare his towels, send the necessary messages and order flowers, he gesticulates wildly in a gay abandon of effeminacy.

This is the only time the mask slips, however. And a later sequence in which he describes an observational visit to a male brothel in quest of descriptive detail, is shot and performed with the hieratic rigour of a Racine tragedy: Céleste doing the emoting as Marcel recounts his findings with the clinical detachment of a scientist. The point here, I think, has nothing to do with whether or not Proust was homosexual. Rather, it is another of the film’s fundamental oppositions: between the Marcel of the earlier scene, who is playing, having fun, letting his natural inclinations take control, and the Proust who is at work in describing the secret perversions of the brothel, imposing the perspective of his art on what he has seen and felt.

The pattern is completed by one further opposition, this time between art and nature. Or, if you prefer, between the man who has no body left, only imagination and memory, and the woman who is instinct with life. The heart of the film is therefore contained in the nocturnal ceremonies where Proust, returning exhausted from his increasingly infrequent forays into the social world still swirling to its doom outside his sanctum, treats Céleste to spellbinding re-enactments of the sayings and doings he has culled in his researches. He is, in effect, using her as a litmus test to discover whether there is life and not merely memory in his observations.

Never remotely academic in depicting the writer, and leaving literary reputation to take care of itself, CELESTE is really a Proustian film rather than a film about Proust. On the one hand, the relationship between Marcel and Céleste is time regained, the restoration through her of his adored mother. On the other, its texture is achieved primarily through techniques of association, with Marcel, Céleste and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu bound inextricably together by three marvelous montage sequences which bring reality to memory. First, the images of Cabourg (including the very oval window at the Grand Hotel from which Proust used to watch the sunset) as Céleste recalls her initial refusal, since stubbornly upheld, to address him as Marcel rather than as Monsieur Proust. Then shots of stately mansions and street plaques in the Faubourg St. Germain (with names like Greffulhe, Castellane and Hamelin evoking the real-life personages who modeled for the vanishing society of A la Recherche) as Marcel remembers how she first brought her life to his living death. And finally, the images of Céleste’s native village of Auxillac as she uses the balm of one nostalgia to soothe another.

Since Adlon claims (and displays) antecedents in music, literature and art rather than in the cinema, it is difficult to pin down the particular quality of his style here. More than anything else, with Jürgen Arndt and his languorously liquid Oriental eyes bringing a hallucinating resemblance to his impersonation, it is based on faithful recreation of poses familiar from photographs of Proust, as well as of the celebrated sanctum. If one can also detect the hand of the art documentarist, it is not in the scenes that the opening shot of Céleste patiently waiting on an upright kitchen chair suggests a Vermeer, since the subsequent free movement within the frame plays havoc with notions of formal composition. Rather, to use a phrase employed by Adlon himself instead of the usual true or realistic in searching to describe an effect that pleases him, ‘it’s more...more Cézanne.’