[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Time Regained, adapted by Chilean director Raul Ruiz from the final volume of Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrances of Things Past, is about the texture of memory. Set in the first decades of the 20th century, in the salon society of the Paris élite, the film begins with the aging narrator (a not-so-thinly veiled Marcel Proust, played by lookalike actor Marcello Mazzarella but voiced by Patrice Chereau) dictating his final novel from a sickbed: “Then one day, everything changes.”
That phrase describes the film nicely: nothing is fixed, everything is in flux. In this opening scene the camera glides through the bric-a-brac of his bedroom, which themselves take slow flight in a dance with the camera as the room expands and shrinks wildly from shot to shot. Far from mere cinematic acrobatics, this sets the stage for an exploration of the fabric of memory from a director whose films have traditionally reverberated with the tensions between reality, dreams, and perspective.
The narrator’s mind floats back to his days with a small circle of acquaintances: gentleman gadabout Count Saint Loup (Pascal Greggory) and his neglected young wife Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), her luxury-loving mother Odette (Catherine Deneuve), the insolent Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich, who beautifully captures the bored decadence of an arrogant aristocrat), the pianist and journalist Morel (Vincent Perez), and the eternal hostess and nosy social busybody Madame Verdurin (Marie-France Pisier).
Bookended by two high society salons, we follow the characters through World War I in a catalogue of small talk, petty feuds, vicious gossip, meaningless affairs, and endless parties, which Ruiz manages to make both ridiculous and fascinating. Mazzarella’s narrator is both observer and participant, but his presence is dominated by his calm eyes and restrained, wry smile as he mingles and records.
It’s a rich mix of characters and a gorgeous evocation of early 20th-century Paris and society, with delicate images and bravura camerawork (by Ricardo Arnovich), but what makes the film come alive is the way Ruiz gracefully weaves through flashbacks triggered by sights, sounds, and thoughts, effortlessly ricocheting from remembrance to remembrance.
By the final soirée, with characters aged into parodies of themselves or simply absent (in person, not spirit), past and present intermingle as the narrator sees not the wrinkled figures of now, but the young faces of yesteryear: just as he remembers them. With almost offhanded bravura, Ruiz throws young and old incarnations of the narrator together for a final, delicately dazzling walk through his memories.
Critics familiar with Proust have celebrated Time Regained for capturing an unfilmable novel with remarkable faithfulness. I’ve never read the novel, but my praise for Ruiz is no less glowing. Densely layered, demanding, and stunningly beautiful, this is a richly woven tapestry of life lived and remembered. Ruiz has found the perfect venue for his passions and created the most poetic, sublime, and cinematically breathtaking film of the new millennium.