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Tea Time | The Nation

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Tea Time

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This brings us to one of the brothel's clients, the Baron de Charlus, and the masterstroke of Ruiz's casting. Aesthete, moralist, hypocrite, soft touch, conversational terror and all-around instructive figure, Charlus is played by John Malkovich. Supplied with a thatch of frizzed-out hair and a tuft of beard beneath his lower lip, Malkovich looks uncannily like Montesquiou (Proust's model for Charlus), with Whistler thrown in for good measure. Does Malkovich sound like a native speaker of French? Not at all. But he's a sly actor and knows the baron's epigrams might rise languidly to the lips, as if half-sung. The care Malkovich must take with his pronunciation turns into a feature of the character. As for the giggle, the imperiousness, the X-ray vision, the vain attempts to hide the bad teeth and, finally, near death, the shambling pathos, these all come directly from the book and from some unknown source within Malkovich. This is easily his best performance.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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In sum, Time Regained is faultlessly cast, as well as faultlessly realized in production design. The sense of decorum is exact. (To choose one moment out of many: Marcel not only waits for a servant to pour his tea but also observes the nicety of being asked each detail of how he'd like it served.) Most impressive of all, concepts that are elaborated in the book through exhaustive analysis spring into bold and utterly natural visual forms in the film, thanks to Ruiz's inventiveness.

But these are all virtues of imitation. Although they will take you a long way through the screening, if you love Proust enough, they don't guarantee Time Regained a life of its own.

It has a life--though you might not sense it fully at first, because Ruiz and his co-screenwriter, Gilles Taurand, have taken extraordinary risks in the picture's long first movement. After a prologue, in which they introduce and intermingle no fewer than three time periods (the 1920s for the narrator, the early months of World War I for the adult Marcel, the 1880s for Marcel as a boy), the filmmakers lead us through a fairly complete circuit of the characters' broken loves. Maybe this part of the film is too tricky to be written off as expository, but it bears a heavy load of information, all the same. Patience. As the first movement draws toward a close, you will find yourself at the rounding off of one narrative loop, and then another. The teacup that Marcel broke in his agitation, any number of scenes earlier, emerges from a drawer in Gilberte's house; the afternoon party with which the narrator's memories began somehow circles back and starts again.

Loops within loops: Time Regained continues to build musically (the only way to build, as far as Proust is concerned) throughout two more large movements. The first broods over the decay, or hollowing out, of the characters during World War I; the second, which begins with Marcel's utter disillusionment at the war's end, leads to his discovery of the world that awaits him in memory, intact and redeemed. In my own memory, I will forever treasure the climax of this third movement: the scene in the Guermantes salon where Marcel hears again a piece of music he associates with heartbreak. The music plays; the guests shift crazily in their seats, as if the salon were on a boat tossed at sea; and the camera, which is similarly set adrift, travels past the face of Marcel, who first listens with eyes closed, then seems to smile, then weeps.

How many times has a filmmaker shown you a close-up of a weeping character and asked you, too, to shed a tear? How often have you wanted to respond to the invitation by throwing your box of popcorn at the screen? In Time Regained, for once, I too felt the urge to smile and cry, because the moment was fully in motion, and the moment was full.

After such an experience, there is nothing left to do but express one's gratitude. And that's what Raúl Ruiz does--Ruiz the insolent joker, the parodic surrealist--in a heartfelt coda to Time Regained. He ends with an implied tribute to his source, the novels that contain within them one man's life and everyone's life. It's as if he'd completed the film and seen that it, too, must be absorbed into Remembrance of Things Past; as if, having remade this world, he'd stepped back to let it live beyond his grasp.

A tact so exquisite might impress even Charlus.

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