[Written for The Stranger]
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the more accurate but, to me, less seductively euphonious title that’s been gaining currency of late) would certainly seem to stand out at the head of that notorious literary genre known as the “unfilmable novel.” It’s already defeated, in whole or part, two fine artists: Volker Schlöndorff, who made Swann’s Way,an admittedly well-acted but tepid and overly respectful chamber film; and Harold Pinter, whose clever but attenuated Proust Screenplay only made me grateful that funding never came through to realize the project.
Apparently the challenge required more than merely a fine artist, but a monstrously original one. With Time Regained (the final volume of Remembrance, though scenes are lifted from throughout the mammoth novel), Raúl Ruiz (Three Lives and Only One Death) has made a film as dazzlingly brilliant, as profound, and as beautiful as the source.
Of course, the translation to the screen was made easier because Ruiz’s cinema has been thoroughly Proustian all along. Not just his concern with memory and the tricks it can play, with how we all live first and foremost in time rather than space; if that were all it took, then Alain Resnais would have made this film years ago. For all the visual elegance of his movies, however, Resnais has always been a very cold, cerebral director (as can be confirmed over the coming weeks by the Grand Illusion’s retrospective of his films) — hardly the figure to tackle our most deeply sensual writer. Ruiz, on the other hand, is sensuous, even voluptuous; his most frequent visual trope is to juxtapose medium shots of his actors with a violently foregrounded object so intricately detailed, often so enticingly curvaceous and multi-hued, that its pop-up, clear-focused domination of the screen becomes breathtakingly tactile.
So instead of Schlöndorff’s pretty, decorous rooms or an aesthete’s clean, graceful domain that Pinter implies and Resnais would certainly opt for, Ruiz offers us a riot of ostentatious ornament: vases, paintings, teacups, flowers, statues (especially statues), lacquered boxes, model ships, stuffed boars. Bric-a-brac of all kinds crowd in on the characters (often literally — Ruiz also delights in impossible movement, so that a room rearranges itself about an invalid lying abed, or entire rows of a concert audience slide across the floor in waves). The characters’ parties and nights out dining — which, for these upper-class dilettantes, are barely interrupted by WWI (Mme. Verdurin still gets her croissants; the male brothel Baron de Charlus frequents is ensured a fresh supply of ruddy young soldiers) — are claustrophobic nightmares: the men in their stiff tuxedoes and the women in their beaded gowns, forced to press up against the wall or the long tables bearing food.
This only makes the movie’s physical world as treacherous as its emotional one. The price for participating in the endless diversions that money can procure is an equally endless series of gossip, backbiting, and social climbing; in this cluttered environment, the statues aren’t only the carved figures I mentioned earlier, but the people as well — hard and cold as marble, though infinitely more fragile. (Literalizing Proust’s metaphor, Ruiz occasionally freezes the revelers and paints their faces stone white.) Touchingly pathetic in their failed attempts to turn a blind eye to their own misery, these wealthy socialites and royalty hunt out any companionship they hope will make their lives enjoyable, without success. Though Time Regained is filmed with considerable humor and such surreal inventiveness that it is always a joy to watch, its world view is relentlessly bleak. Friendships are easily betrayed; love is inevitably foredoomed; and happiness is transitory at best, more often a cruel self-deception.
The only redeeming endeavors that can be found are the exhilarating trips one can make down the rabbit hole of one’s own memories (a loose cobblestone trips an absentminded walker, or a napkin rubs just so against a lip, and instantly the scene shifts to a child’s tour of Venice or a young man’s visit to a seaside resort) and the creation of art, which would be impossible without memory’s aid. That message can seem oversimplified (and pretty self-serving coming from an artist), but only when the art itself is bad, or even mediocre. When it is as lovely as this film, the argument seems inescapable.