1999, NR, 165 min. Directed by Raoul Ruiz. Starring Pascal Greggory, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Emmanuelle Beart, Marcello Mazzarella.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 6, 2000
Now here's one with box-office dynamite written all over it. A subtitled, two-hour-and-40-minute French adaptation of an eight-novel series so legendarily hard to wade through that an online support group (www.proust.com/proustgr.html) has formed to help exhort faltering readers to the finis line. Actually, it's only the concluding volume of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past that Ruiz dramatizes here, but themes and characters from all the preceding novels recur throughout the dreamlike narrative. I should also hasten to note that Proust's work is in no way “difficult” in the same sense as brain-busting literary boot-camp experiences such as James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. In fact, for those who are willing to surrender themselves to the logorrheic Frenchman's elegant, meditative style there are few reading experiences more genuinely transporting than Proust's sprawling masterwork. Ruiz (Genealogies of a Crime, Shattered Image) does a remarkable job here of conveying the essence of both Proust's ideas and the sensual beauty of his fictional world. For a director with a reputation for cryptic storytelling and gratuitous weirdness, he shows remarkable restraint. Blending his own considerable gifts as a stylist with the talents of his to-die-for cast, he evokes with startling richness the Proustian landscape in which recurring memory overlaps -- and often overwhelms -- banal everyday reality. The narrative begins with the dying Proust (Mazzarella) sifting through photos of the lovers, antagonists, family members, and chance acquaintances who've inhabited his pampered life among the French social elite. Superficially, none of Marcel's experiences have been all that remarkable: compromises in love; frustration in art; chance encounters with odd, compelling characters who influence his outlook on life. Yet as we quickly realize, it isn't the events per se that matter here. Instead, it's Proust's view of experience as crude ore, the significance of which we comprehend only through vivid flashes of memory inspired by random, often mundane sensory triggers. Time Regained's story, set in World War I-era France, feels hopelessly confusing at first, but -- trust me on this -- slowly coalesces into semi-comprehensibility by the end credits. In the meantime, rather than trying to figure it all out it's probably wise to simply plunge in and ride the swirling currents of luminous images and sublime performances. Among a host of memorable acting turns two in particular stand out: Malkovich as the charmingly depraved Baron de Charlus and Beart as Gilberte, Marcel's prime artistic muse and the object of his thwarted desire. Others make powerful impressions in limited screen time, especially Deneuve as Odette de Crecy, a primal image of female mystery for Marcel. Ruiz's dialogue, much of which he lifts directly from Proust, often has the bracing feel of a George Cukor comedy, providing tart counterpoint to the ethereal haze which occasionally threatens to overwhelm the film. And even in its most twee and overwrought moments Time Regained has at its core a bright, hard flame of visionary purity that compensates for its lack of standard narrative structure. Though Kino International's cheesily generic trailers suggest arthouse Hamburger Helper in the stultifying Merchant-Ivory vein, this film's intelligence and uncompromising originality commend it to even moviegoers with zero tolerance for top hats, parasols, and crap English accents. Do I guarantee you'll consider the experience a fair trade-off for almost three hours of glorious autumn weather? Nope. But in a miserable movie year like this, no serious film fan should let such a worthy effort pass.