Long hailed as a literary breakthrough, Proust's roman à clef deals with his attempts to understand the ephemeral, ever-shifting nature of life itself. Chronically ill, weak, and debilitated, Proust struggled for many years to find a narrative device, a way into his subject. He finally hit on the idea of using his search for a story as his story line and set about to describe his own life among the bohemians and aristocrats of early twentieth-century Paris. The result is a fascinating colossus of a book, originally published in fifteen volumes, that tracks the lives and relationships of dozens of characters, interweaving experience and memory, observation and speculation. Like the rest of Proust's work, it debuted to negative critical response but has always garnered a coterie of adoring devotees.
But how to adapt such a monster? Ruiz and his co-writer, Gilles Taurand, opt to use Proust himself as a central narrative device. The film begins in 1922, as the asthmatic Proust (played by Marcello Mazzarella) lies dying. His thoughts take him back through to his own characters and their intricate stories. These in turn blend with Proust's memories of his earlier self, as a young boy and as a teenager. Entering his own reveries, the adult Proust is fascinated by the mysterious, entrancing Odette and her endless string of husbands. He's even more mesmerized by his childhood sweetheart, the beguiling Gilberte, who is unhappily married to the dashing Robert Saint-Loup. Saint-Loup, who has taken a former prostitute, Rachel, as his lover, also maintains an affair with the handsome Morel, an aspiring pianist. Morel in turn is the object of the desires of the Baron of Charlus, a masochistic aesthete who may have been Odette's lover long ago. Double this cast list and quadruple their intertwining relationships, and you begin to get some idea of the scope of this story. The result is a dreamlike odyssey as Proust careens through the lives of his characters, sometimes as onlooker, sometimes as participant.
Whether Proust captured the nature of human existence certainly is debatable. But that he succeeded in depicting his era in exquisite detail is undeniable. He observes the glamorous, haunted swirl of Parisian society before and during the First World War, savoring the minutiae of life while sensing the sweet sadness of the grand prewar era being swept away by the modern age. In rendering this aspect of Proust's work, Ruiz's film adaptation is a striking success. Ably aided by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, Ruiz creates a beguiling evocation of a long-gone era. Using saturated black and brown hues, the film often feels like it's shot in black and white, with color intruding only occasionally.
Inspired by period photography and Impressionist painting, Ruiz's use of color and composition is brilliant, shot after breathtaking shot. He's helped by a pantheon of designers, Bruno Beauge (production), and Gabriella Pescucci and Caroline DeViaise (costumes). Ruiz takes special care with the details, the sights and sounds, the manners and mores of Parisian café society. A Chilean expat who fled to France to escape the Pinochet regime, he has an outsider's clarity of observation and a great love of French culture, a combination that Proust, also an outsider (artist, homosexual, and invalid), would have appreciated.
But all this beauty and directorial skill isn't matched with much basic narrative appeal. The French may rightfully sniff at the American penchant for simple, fast, mindless movie plots, but Time Regained seems almost deliberately glacial, both in temperature and in tempo, two hours and forty-five minutes of pretty people, pretty costumes, and pretty ideas.
The film is bolstered by its star-studded cast, anchored by the luminescent Catherine Deneuve as Odette, the equally stunning Emmanuelle Beart as Gilberte, and the vigorous, dashing performances of Pascal Greggory as Saint-Loup and Vincent Perez as Morel. American expatriate John Malkovich turns in another of his patented scenery-chewing turns as mincing mad Baron de Charlus. The least successful performance comes from Marcello Mazzarella, who, though a dead ringer for Proust, fails to deliver much more than a general air of sad-eyed quizzical concern. He's onscreen in virtually every scene, yet his performance rarely distinguishes itself from the furniture surrounding him: This is Proust as wooden Indian. Mazzarella's blank blandness is called into question even further by the vivid performances of two young actors who portray Proust as a boy (George Du Fresne) and as a teen (Pierre Mignard). With all three personalities depicting Proust's life, there's an unanswered and probably unintended question: How did such a lively boy turn into a walking dead man?
These concerns aside, the chief problem with Time Regained isn't Ruiz's mistakes, but that he allows himself so few chances to make any. Despite (or perhaps because of) his love of the material, he's far too careful with it. While Proust took bold steps to invent a new language of the novel, Ruiz doesn't do anything nearly as inventive with his film. This story may be about gender-bending cultural radicals, but it is told in conventional, almost reactionary terms. Even the various surrealistic elements Ruiz employs seem antique. Characters' aged faces suddenly transform into their younger selves. Rows of seated concertgoers begin to drift past one another, like tourist boats on the Seine. Seated at a table Proust begins to levitate, rising toward a movie screen above him. This mixture of lyricism and disorientation recalls the work of Jean Cocteau (who happened to be a friend of Proust) as well as Alain Resnais and Luchino Visconti. It's referential and reverential.
This style of "museum cinema," the embalming of once-radical works, has a comforting effect on some people. It plays up the glossy furniture, the lush period music, and the dreamy speculations. It plays down Proust's rough-and-tumble sexuality and his rather disagreeable social habits, turning him into an amusing, bumbling voyeur. It's the Merchant-Ivory School of Great Art. It's stylish and sociable, like an afternoon tea party. But lacking Proust's fierce honesty and courage, Time Regained feels too cool, too careful, to lead us deeply into Proust's heart, mind, and soul. C'est un hommage et c'est dommage.
This review first appeared in the July 6, 2000, issue.