Everyone knows you can't film Remembrance of Things Past, so Raúl Ruiz did it. With hindsight--the only kind worth having, as far as Proust is concerned--I now understand this act of effrontery and genius as the culmination of Ruiz's career.
As if to prepare for this moment, he has given himself many years' practice poking holes in the conventions of storytelling, trying to glimpse what might lie beyond those walls. (In a 1982 work, On Top of the Whale, he even allowed a first-person narrator to get into a canoe and paddle out of the film, so that the other characters, and the audience, had to muddle on without guidance.) Ruiz has also cultivated an appropriate obsession with the mysteries of language and identity; in the 1996 Three Lives and Only One Death, for example, different persons take up residence in the body of Marcello Mastroianni, moving in and out of his flesh in response to a seemingly random whispering of words. If the gnosticism of such films was un-Proustian, the hermeticism was right in the spirit. So, too, was the sense of loss and longing, which Ruiz carried with him into exile from Allende's Chile, and which he has since poured into many different forms of melancholy laughter.
All this was common knowledge to anyone who had followed Ruiz's career. Even so, I could not believe what I was seeing in Time Regained, his version of the final and encapsulating novel of Proust's masterwork. This structure built of memory and meditative intelligence simply could not keep rising into the air, growing more and more complete; and still, as the minutes went by, as I held my breath, the miracle didn't collapse.
First, to my astonishment, I saw that Ruiz had made physical reality as variable as it should be in Time Regained. It's only through habit, another name for inattention, that we come to think of objects as inanimate, reflects Proust (or the narrator) at the beginning of the novels; perhaps we come close to the truth when we awake in the middle of the night and think the furniture has shifted on its own. And so, in the film, the writer's bedchamber, with its striped wallpaper, resembles a magical gift box as seen from the inside, expanding or contracting according to the mnemonic presents it contains. The camera moves through this space like a slow but firm pen stroke; and as it does so, congregations of hand-size statuary seem to group and regroup, pieces of furniture crowd together or disperse, and an all-seeing cheval glass, standing watch in one corner, reflects back an author who can occupy three or four bodies at once. First subtly, so that the movement of objects looks like the ordinary displacement caused by a tracking shot, then more and more blatantly, Ruiz makes good on Proust's intuitions of mutability.
Then, one after the other, the principal characters come onto the screen, looking exactly as they should. Marie-France Pisier, all twittering smiles and fluttering black feathers, flounces through a reception room as the tireless party-giver Madame Verdurin. She preens--then squawks, "What's she doing here?" as a second figure approaches down the hall. How does the too-much-married Odette dare to show her face in this salon, especially now that she's gone to ruin? But you're wrong, says Madame Verdurin's companion; Odette is superbe. And so she is, as we see when she walks through the door, because she turns out to be Catherine Deneuve: her face and body plumper than in youth, and her expression all the more confident for it. She enters like one of the warmer aquatic goddesses, afloat in serenity and blond radiance.
Odette's daughter, the unhappily married Gilberte, is played by apple-cheeked, pillow-lipped Emmanuelle Béart, who might easily be Deneuve's offspring. (Deneuve's real daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, also appears in the picture, as Albertine, the other person who broke our narrator's heart.) In the role of Gilberte's husband, the ideal aristocrat Robert de Saint-Loup, we have Pascal Greggory: light eyes, carved cheeks, lanky body held perfectly upright. When he comes back to Paris during World War I, on leave from the trenches, he talks with his mouth full and slurps his wine, in a rush to get food into his body and the corpses out of his head. Then there's Vincent Pérez as Morel, the lazily talented, omnisexual flirt who makes the most of all the other characters. A foxlike figure, Pérez squirms his way deep into Morel at all phases of his career, from cloth-capped punk to has-been blowhard in a boiled shirt.
Throughout these scenes, the adult but not-yet-bedridden Marcel is played by Marcelo Mazzarello, who might have been cast out of the photo insert of a biography of Proust. The features, even the tilt of the head, belong to the author; but the slightly stoop-shouldered, flat-footed gait is the actor's invention, and a brilliant one, making Marcel into a silent-movie clown in dandy's attire: Max Linder as literary genius. Watch him at the male brothel he's "just happened" to stumble into; see how he walks off-camera for a moment, then returns with perfect aplomb carrying a chair he can stand on, the better to peep through a transom.