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CELESTE(director/writer: Percy Adlon; screenwriter: from the novel Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret; cinematographer: Jürgen Martin; editor: Clara Fabry; music: César Franck; cast: Eva Mattes (Celeste Albaret), Jürgen Arndt (Marcel Proust), Norbert Wartha (Odilon Albaret), Wolf Euba (Robert Proust); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Eleonore Adlon; New Yorker Films; 1981-West Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“The Germanic approach to the French subject-matter seems too foreign and glum to make this biopic sparkle like champagne.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Germanic approach to the French subject-matter seems too foreign and glum to make this biopic sparkle like champagne. Writer-director Percy Adlon, former documentary filmmaker, in his feature film debut, bases it on the memoir of Celeste Albaret who, from 1914 until his death in 1922, was Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, companion, secretary, and muse during his writing of ”Remembrance of Things Past.” Ambitious to be a literary work, it’s only partially successful in bringing the tale to life cinematic-ally. The reason might be because the visual effects just never quite seem Proustian.

The film zeroes in on Proust (Jürgen Arndt) as the sophisticate dandy matching wits with his restrained and good-natured peasant woman servant Celeste (Eva Mattes), the wife of his taxi driver, as he both acts tyrannical and dependent on her. Through this robust relationship we get glimpses of the celebrated author working at a feverish pace to finish his masterpiece before his death. We observe that the author sleeps all day and awakens at 4 p.m., as he then has his usual tea with milk and afterwards will write all night while sitting in bed propped up on pillows. The spare film gives us time to explore the elusive genius’s mind-set, his troubling illness and his penchant for telling Celeste stories about the time he made his way in upper-class society (dropping an assortment of prominent names from Cocteau to his favorite Princess), his visits to male brothels and his high-living as a gourmet.

It’s meticulous, to a point of over doing it, in its attention to details of movement, sounds (especially clocks ticking) and of the household’s daily routines. We see how Celeste was at Proust’s beck and call all his waking hours and only entered his cork-lined chamber room when he rang. The claustrophobic film takes place almost entirely inside Proust’s apartment, making it rather depressing. It finally gives up trying to get at the elusive writer and settles on being about the relationship between the two friends, who are both convinced of their mission to make sure he lives long enough to finish his manuscript. It would have been more interesting if it made more headway into Proust.

I enjoyed Mattes’ more natural performance over Arndt’s affected one, that was acceptable but never gave me the feeling I was getting closer to the author.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”