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102 Boulevard
Haussmann
1991
 

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t e l e v i s i o n
.

102 Boulevard Haussmann

Alan Bennett and Alan Bates
have set themselves an almost impossible task:
an exploration of the roots of creativity, based on
Marcel Proust's sexual frustration and love of music.

from Time Out's Television & Broadcast guide, 1988
by Elaine Paterson

Filming writers inevitably poses problems. What writers do is not cinematic, and even if there are 100 ways to film them writing, film-makers can't hope to visualise inspriation; the germination of thought. Which makes Alan Bennett's decision to base "102 Boulevard Haussmann" on an episode from Marcel Proust's later years (1916, to be exact) seem all the more perverse. After 1907 Proust did little else but think and write; an asthmatic invalid in a sound-proofed room, tucked up in bed -- alone.
Luckily for Proust -- and for the drama -- he had a maid, Celeste, played by Janet McTeer with exquisite hauteur), and it's their cloistered relationship which forms the backbone of "Boulevard Haussmann." Theirs is an insular and seemingly inviolable pond. Proust's demands deny Celeste's poor husband, on short leave from the front, time alone with his wife -- the writer is not above knowingly and needlessly interrupting their love-making. Celeste, in turn, will intervene to protect Proust from the young viola players he finds so attractive, and whom he lures in quartets to his apartment to perform the phrase by Franck which recurs in "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu." In their mutual possessiveness they are, says director Udayan Prasad, "like an old married couple" and the suggestion is that Celeste created the environment which enabled Proust to work.
This is very much Bennett territory; a static world of repressed intimacy in which incidentals -- the arch of an eyebrow, a thought spoken aloud, the plumping of pillows -- seems meaningful, and he handles it with economy and wit. He applied a similar reductive process to his celebrated TV film about Guy Burgess, "An Englishman Abroad," and some of that team help to bring "Haussmann" alive. Innes Lloyd produces and Bates stars. But while "102 Boulevard Haussmann" can work as a drama about relationships, there's more to it than embellished biography.
Says Prasad: "The script has its own reality. It doesn't pretend to be a documentary about what Proust did in that short period of time. On set, Alan Bennett made the point about wanting to show people who are artistically engaged in the process of creativity as being barely human."
In this respect the drama is only partly successful. Bates, employing what Prasad describes as "sinister charm," creates a Proust who is both dislocated from the outside world and in control of his own. But the drama's failing is inevitably in communicating creativity -- an activity centred for Bennett's Proust in the inner reverie that music induces. As the quartet performs, Bates's face becomes twitchingly expressive in close-up and Prasad attempts to "use the camera as if it was Proust's eye". What these overlong passages will communicate to viewers not aware of the significance of the refrain in Proust's novel is anyone's guess. Still, the music's beautiful.
As a Bennett "fictional reality,""102 Boulevard Haussmann" is absorbing and affecting. Its underlying musing on the nature of genius may be a meander up an intellectual cul-de-sac, but the cul-de-sac is beautifully shot, set in a space and time entirely of its own, and governed by two extraordinary characters.

Inside Proust's Paris and Vulnerable Heart

from the Los Angeles Times, 26 November 1991

by Kevin Thomas

102 Boulevard Haussmann was the address of the great French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) who, wracked with asthma, spent much of his life writing through the night in the famous cork-lined bedroom of his ornate Paris townhouse. Directed by Udayan Prasad, this masterful, subtle, 70-minute film takes us inside this residence and into its owner's vulnerable heart.
At first, the depiction here of Proust (Alan Bates) and his devoted housekeeper Celeste (Janet McTeer) recalls the characters' portrayal in Percy Adlon's memorable 1983 "Celeste." Theirs was a traditional master-and-servant relationship but suffused with a transcending mutual appreciation.
Yet writer Alan Bennett. [shown here on the set of "102 Boulevard Haussmann" with Alan Bates] who wrote the superb 1985 "An Englishman Abroad," in which Bates played notorious spy Guy Burgess, tells of an incident in Proust's life that allows us to see the Proust-Celeste relationship from a different - and disturbing - angle.
The time is early in World War I; by now Proust went out rarely and only at night. At a concert by a string quartet, the novelist, who was gay, is taken with the young viola player (Paul Rhys). Soon, Proust has persuaded the young man that he and his quartet should play a concert for him in his bedroom very late at night, for which he pays them handsomely. Ever so indirectly, Proust begins his courting of the young man.
What develops next is totally unexpected, leaving us to ponder the motivations of Celeste but especially of Proust's physician (Philip McGough). Are they interested merely in protecting Proust's health? Or do they feel that Proust, as a homosexual, somehow has to be protected from himself? In any event, their actions are outrageous, and all the more so for not actually sparing Proust any pain.

©1991, Times Mirror Company