Célestine, bonne à tout faire (1974)

Lina Romay may give her finest performance in this winning sex-comedy. Unofficially based on Octave Mirbeau’s “The Diary of a Chambermaid,” previously filmed by Luis Bunuel among others, it tells the story of Celestine, a fun-loving prostitute who eludes the clutches of the police by fleeing into the private service of a noble family. Initially welcomed by a randy farmhand, Celestine’s open and exuberant sexuality liberates the entire repressed household, working its way up from the working class of the household staff (its butler and the cook) to the hard-studying son of the family, then the Count himself, and even the Count’s bedridden father (Howard Vernon), to whom Celestine reads pornographic stories with great relish. The non-stop, obsessively repeated harpsichord score may drive some viewers crazy but it also suffuses the movie with an unusual lightness and dazzle for this director. The wonderful cast includes Pamela Stanford, Monika Swinn, Olivier Mathot, Rick de Conninck, Ramon Ardid and Anne Carrec.

Franco directed this movie under his “Clifford Brown” pseudonym, but it’s one of his best, most enjoyable movies and one of his few movies that generate a sense of warmth and health. It was scripted by his first wife, Nicole Guettard Franco, who previously worked as his script girl.

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.

Alternate Titles
Celestine
Celestine an All Round Maid Australian video title
Celestine, Maid at Your Service USA
The Sexcapades of Celestine Australian video box title
Date: January 24, 2021