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
Mr. Adlon has created a very special, unusual work.
SIGHT AND SOUND
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.
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
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, CELESTEis 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.’