Friday, August 3, 2012

132. CELESTINE... BONNE A TOUT FAIRE (1974)

Though it was released only in Germany, this light-hearted sex comedy was the film chosen to become the first Jess Franco Blu-ray disc. I think it was a fortuitous choice. Its very character is bright; it is that rare Franco film which whistles a happy tune and ventures down no dark corridors of the soul. Scripted by Franco's first wife and longtime script girl Nicole Guettard (who wrote quite a few of his best films of this period, including LORNA THE EXORCIST), it's a spicy co-option of the principal character of Octave Mirbeau's THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, twice filmed previously, once in 1964 by Franco's fellow Spanish expatriat Luís Buñuel, who worked from a moderately darker script by Jean-Claude Carrière, subsequently Franco's co-writer on THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z and ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS (both 1965).

The slender story opens with Celestine (Lina Romay) eluding arrest with a friend as the police raid a brothel. While hiding out in the hayloft of the Count de la Braquette's estate, she meets the hayseed handyman Sébastien (Ramón Ardid, billed as Raymond Hardy) and the butler Malou (Bigottini, aka Rick De Conninck - a fine comic actor also seen in Louis Malle's ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO), who reward her favors with the offer of employment. In a manner recalling Terence Stamp's effect on the household in TEOREMA, Celestine's open and relaxed attitude toward sexuality has a transformative effect on the isolated, moribund inhabitants of the mansion, imbuing them with gift of renewed life for the men and women alike, that remains even after a third act twist that forces her to betray them.

This is Franco's most successful comedy, merrily buoyed by a lively score by Paul de Senneville and Olivier Toussaint, and it features what is very likely Lina Romay's warmest, funniest and most accessible performance. Anyone who sticks to an intensive study of Franco's work develops an intimate relationship with his repertory players and, after decades of seeing this and other films primarily via dupey VHS cassettes, I felt a bit overwhelmed to see the likes of Lina Romay, Pamela Stanford, Monica Swinn, Nadine Pascal and the lesser-known but formidably appealing Anne Garrec standing before me with such supernatural clarity and youth. I should equally congratulate the male cast members -- which includes Howard Vernon (as an impotent old roué to whom Celestine reads salacious passages from Sade) and Olivier Mathot -- all of whom prove themselves wonderfully adept at playing comedy; it's the only time I've seen Ramón Ardid called upon to give a real performance, and he's wonderful. Lina's final closeup in the film, in which she blows a solitary kiss to the sleeping inhabitants of the mansion before sneaking away to new adventures, is now formidably poignant in the wake of her death.   

Viewed via Edition Tonfilm import DVD (French and German audio only, no English subtitles).

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