“time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was – only is.”
– William Faulkner, interview in The Paris Review, Spring 1956
The sculptor can’t do it. Neither can the painter. The architect and the choreographer… perhaps. But the composer, the playwright and the filmmaker can take a colossal work of literature and turn it into another form of art. John Huston did it with Melville’s Moby Dick (1956), King Vidor with Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956), and Joseph Strick with Joyce’s Ulysses (1967). Raúl Ruiz did it, too, magnificently, with the last section of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/The Remembrance of Things Past), in his grandly atmospheric and fiercely elegant film, Le temps retrouvé, d’après l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust (Time Regained, 1999). Ruiz doesn’t so much adapt Proust’s masterpiece as allow a transformation of the novel (and his responses to it) into a protean pastiche of the elements of memory. Proust’s words and ideas explode into moving images that portray what the critic Geoffrey O’Brien calls “a haven in interior reflection”. If Proust dissects memory and describes how it ravages the soul, Ruiz shows us how it wrenches not only the characters but memory itself, twisting and straining against time present and time past.
In “The Front Row”, his blog for The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote recently, “adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic”. Ruiz’s Time Regained is as brave and daring as Proust’s great work. By visually molding time like so much clay, Ruiz savours memory and its playfulness, its dance with time, waltzing here, careening there, freezing in a moment that announces loss and discovery, despair and revelation.
Ruiz’s achievement is sonic as well as visual. His sound crew impeccably imports aural felicities from one scene into the next. Sounds travel the way snatches of the day’s events swirl through the part of the brain where dreams are born. Church bells mix with the clang of a hammer on the wheel of a train engine, which in turn plays against the chink of a spoon on a delicate teacup. The birds, whose songs will be heard outside in the next scene, begin to chirp in a drawing room well-insulated from the outdoors. Images make similar journeys. They fade, disappear and reappear like distant, lurking memories. The dead come to life and the near dead suddenly become young in montages that quiz the viewer’s memory in a kind of Proustian experiment. Toward the end of the film, Proust (Marcello Mazzarella) and Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), both older, both closer to death, remember a sign advertising Cacao Kwatta that hung on a board at the beach where they met many years before: a visual madeleine dipped in tea. In another stunning visual moment, Proust gently scolds Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni), who complains about the monotony of a sonata by Vinteuil (a fictional composer, most likely) that she’s struggling to play. “It’s like a hidden reality”, Proust says of the little music that keeps coming back, like the stonecutters in Thomas Hardy. With Proust and Albertine in the dun background, small marble figures in the foreground are starkly lit, their whiteness all but blinding.
Brody makes the point that working with a shorter work, a short story or a novella, gives the filmmaker “the chance to expand and elaborate, rather than condense and truncate, the literary source”. Brody might also have been writing about Ruiz’s accomplishments in Time Regained. Amongst the best of these interpretations of shorter works is Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle (2005), based on Joseph Conrad’s long story, The Return, written in 1897. My reasons for invoking this film go far beyond its excellence. There are riches in the connections between the two. Greggory, who plays Saint-Loup, was Jean Hervey against Isabelle Huppert’s Gabrielle in Chéreau’s film. He embodies the cold viciousness both projects call for. Chéreau is the voice of Proust in Ruiz’s film, reading passages that abundantly emphasise and amplify Ricardo Aronovich’s sumptuous camerawork, which upends the viewer with sharply canted angles, and views from above a parade of characters or underneath a table. Aronovich captures the sweep of Proust’s ventures into the dark corners of memory as voraciously as he closes in on a character, as when Saint-Loup consumes a plateful of meat, chewing each generous bite with leonine ferocity, forcing each mouthful into his stomach with an audible gulp of wine. And where Chéreau’s voice makes Proust’s words part of the filmic narrative, Chéreau as director plasters Conrad’s words on the screen like on old-fashioned billposter. All that’s missing is the slap of the glue-saturated brush.
Ruiz’s film, by turns sprawling and intimate, its colours finely textured one moment and applied by cinematic palette knife the next, demands a cast with vast experience. Well-known actors, familiar with their own long pasts onscreen or on the stage, ground the film in a way first-timers or newcomers would not. Catherine Deneuve possesses a sinister knowingness as Odette de Crecy. Emmanuelle Béart seduces with every glance as Gilberte. John Malkovich delivers a charmingly creepy performance as Le Baron de Charlus. And the voracious Greggory teeters between militaristic correctness and scandal as Robert Saint-Loup. Vincent Perez infuses the musician Morel with his own brand of decadence. Ruiz’s wry treatment of Proust’s material – reflected in many of the characters – bows to the age that included the Great War, its aftermath, and a sense of foreboding that the war to end all wars really wasn’t, and a decadence, ennui and a cynical ambiguity that gripped a continent, not just a novel. “Who cares if it’s true or not as long as I believe it?” de Charlus says to one of the soldiers who gather in a brothel where de Charlus and other wealthy aristocrats pay handsomely to be beaten and serviced by brave young men about to die charging yet one more hill, taking yet one more trench. Death would seem to be the only certainty, the only reality Ruiz (and Proust) latch onto. But with pallbearers carrying their load on a beach where the dead Saint-Loup rides a majestic stallion, bathed in yellow and gold light, even death becomes a memory.
- Richard Brody, “Movies from Books”, The New Yorker 7 August 2012: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2012/08/movies-from-books.html.
Le temps retrouvé, d’après l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust/Time Regained/Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1999 France/Italy/Portugal 158 mins)
Prod Co: Gemini Films/France 2 Cinéma/Blu Cinematografica Prod: Paolo Branco Dir: Raúl Ruiz Scr: Gilles Taurand, Raúl Ruiz, based on the novel by Marcel Proust Phot: Ricardo Aronovich Ed: Denise de Casabianca Prod Des: Bruno Beauge Mus: Jorge Arriagada
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, John Malkovich, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory, Marcello Mazzerella, Marie-France Pisier, Arielle Dombasle, Chiara Mastroianni, Patrice Chéreau (voiceover)