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.
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.
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.