Chilean director Raoul Ruiz is no stranger to tricky literary adaptations or seemingly “unfilmable” projects, but set himself a truly Herculean task in adapting the final novel in Marcel Proust’s (or Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust - if you want to be pedantic) monumental sixteen-volume epic “Remembrance of Things Past”.
Drawn from “The Past Recaptured”, the movie opens with a dying Proust (director Patrice Chéreau) dictating the final passages of his masterwork to his maidservant (Mathilde Seigner). Looking at photographs around his bed, he is drawn into a stream-of-consciousness evocation of the past where, transformed from boy (André Engel) to man (Marcello Mazzarella) and back again, Marcel crosses paths with an array of aristocratic enigmas: seductive socialite Odette de Crecy (Catherine Deneuve); her daughter - and Marcel’s unfulfilled love - Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart); Gilberte’s husband the Marquis Robert de Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory) who has a homosexual dalliance with his protégé, the musician Morel (Vincent Perez), who keeps a long-standing feud with his onetime lover Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich), a waspish wit who indulges his sadomasochistic proclivities at a gay brothel staffed by cash-strapped soldiers from the First World War. Woven around these time-hopping recollections are mirthful social moth Madame Vedurin (Marie-France Pisier), gossipy American Madame de Farcy (Arielle Dombasle), and Marcel’s other paramour Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni). Memories of all influence his grandiose work of literary art.
Prior to Time Regained, Volker Schlondorff filmed an earlier segment in Proust’s cycle as Swann in Love (1984) which drew criticism for being a pale reflection of its multilayered literary source, though Alain Delon won praise for his melancholy turn as Baron de Charlus. In Ruiz’s film the story remains a slippery, ephemeral spectre often eluding our grasp. Those unprepared may left infuriated by its seeming lack of structure, coherence and how a fair few characters remain enigmas at best. And yet one sense Ruiz has succeeded in translating Proust’s prose, for what he presents are fragments: images, feelings, scents - all highly subjective, yet open to interpretation. If you surrender to its spell this offers an elegant cine-spectacle rich in poetry and insight.
Ruiz’s languid filmic style treads a delicate line between naturalism and fantasy, without crossing into vacuous artifice, while the lush photography by Ricardo Aranovich does full justice to the hypnotic beauty of Emmanuelle Béart and a veritable galaxy of French film stars. Catherine Deneuve is well cast as the “ageless” and “ravishing” Odette de Crecy, who so captivates the young Marcel then wafts in and out of his life like a spectre. With further eye-catching turns from Arielle Dombasle and Marie-France Pisier, the film becomes almost an ode to gracefully maturing beauty, while Vincent Perez and Pascal Greggory relish their meaty roles.
Devotees of Proust’s novel will note no taste of madeleines triggers our narrator’s jaunt down memory lane, although late in the game his afternoon tea reawakens his faith in writing. The film is as much concerned with recollection as in revealing how the ghost’s in Marcel’s head come from a vanishing world, set to be swept away by the First World War.