In the opening scenes of Raul Ruiz’s dazzling adaptation of the last volume in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a dying Proust lies in his modest apartment, gasping for breath as he dictates to the faithful Céleste the life’s work for which he has, after years of obsessing and rejection, found a literary voice. Pausing to rummage through a pile of photos of the men and women who have shaped his life, Proust becomes lost in memories — or re-inventions — of an apparently idyllic childhood marred only by illness, and of his adult life in the swank belle époque salons of Paris, marred not nearly enough by the horrors of World War I.
The photo trick is a common device in film for framing a life led against the sweep of history. But that’s not Ruiz’s game, any more than it was Proust’s. Time Regained comes as close as perhaps any film has gotten to approximating the inner life of an artist, and more particularly the process by which the selections of memory reshape the banalities of mere observation into a general truth. What that truth is is never made clear, for Time Regained is about nothing less than the mechanics of consciousness, and if you’re up for it, the movie’s strategic delirium will spring you altogether from the need for coherence. For one thing there’s no story, unless it’s the writer’s life sputtering out as his masterwork flowers into full immortal bloom. For another, the whole notion of character is up for grabs, as the men and women Proust has known become the men and women of his fiction. (That includes himself: The narrator, Marcel, played as an adult by the Italian actor Marcello Mazzarella, is distinct from the narrator Proust, voiced by director Patrice Chereau, who made that other lovely fever dream, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.) And time itself, or that linear disciplining of time in which we have been so incorrigibly schooled, keeps splintering and wheeling back on itself — time regained by the acts of remembering and forgetting.
A trendier filmmaker might have seized on Proust as an excuse to strut the self-conscious stratagems of postmodern cinema. Not Ruiz: Whether the subject is the fatuous chatter of blue bloods at a full-dress dinner or the bloodied sheets from a recent whipping in a brothel, Time Regained is a regal, evanescent creature, shot with a camera that glides and swoops and hovers like some graceful, inquisitive bird, watching and waiting for the gesture, the tic, the image that gainsays rhetoric or triggers another memory, and another, and another. The camera follows Marcel as he passes from one salon room into a different time and place, and back again to the present, tracking his train of thought rather than his body. In one vertiginous soirée scene, Marcel, reading a letter from his childhood friend Gilberte (played by Emmanuelle Béart, an unforgivably luscious screen siren worthy to succeed Catherine Deneuve, who plays her mother, Odette, in the movie) about the German destruction of their town, levitates against a screen on which the carnage of the war is projected, while at his side the boy Marcel circles him with his own primitive movie projector.
For Ruiz, as for Proust, it’s the image that inspires the desire to tell a story — words are propaganda, the furiously lying crafters of the public self. In Time Regained people never stop talking, but it’s the accumulation of telling gestures, refracted through the pitiless gaze of Marcel the boy, the social butterfly, the dying artist, that reveals to us those he has loved and lost, and the world they inhabit. “If I’m too ‘me,’” warns Gilberte, “you don’t see me.” The point being that there is no “me”: Marcel’s many reunions with his childhood friend — as they grow both younger and older, not always in sync — serve not to “flesh out” her character or tell us what she is “really” like, but quite the reverse, to mirror the endlessly fragmentary alliances and battles between word, gesture and context that make up that gossamer invention we are pleased to call the self. Is Gilberte the poised beauty discussing literature at tea with Marcel, or the cheapskate (her mother’s daughter, as it turns out) who orders a maid not to throw away a cracked teacup, or the unhappy wife who dresses up as her husband’s actress lover in order to reclaim his attention?
So, too, with the army of aristocratic types that throngs through Marcel’s head, ripe for processing. (By loading the scenery with statuary, Ruiz waggishly alludes to Proust’s unblushing suggestion in his last book that those he knew were posing as subjects for his art.) We meet Gilberte’s husband, the sexually omnivorous Robert de Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), who dies a war hero; Robert’s uncle, the Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich, in a performance at least as entertaining as his turn in Being John Malkovich), whose appetite for rough trade and admiration for the Germans equals his courage at the front; the coquette Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni), who appears as a ghost; the pretty-boy social climber Morel (Vincent Perez), who appears to have bedded just about everyone of note in town.
Certainly Time Regained records a particular world — bitchy, unsavory, rife with hypocrisy, pretension and self-serving, its lavish proprieties and interiors barely concealing the casual sexual fluidity that aristocracies have always permitted themselves. The movie is a period piece in the most probing, iconoclastic sense: The gorgeous brocades and sumptuous jewelry and gleaming silverware are there less to mimic some bland PBS anthropology of beau-monde life at the turn of the century than to show us how its denizens use clothes and furniture just as they use words — for cover. A lost earring at a funeral sums up the skin-deep grief of a gabby socialite, and in one almost unwatchably protracted scene, Saint-Loup tears voraciously into his meat at dinner while graphically describing the battlefront carnage and the nobility of the common man.
Marcel himself is no cipher. Those who cherish an image of the writer as a neurasthenic, tea-sipping recluse are in for a shock. For a lonely hypochondriac, the writer was some party animal, and Mazzarella, whose lantern jaw and hooded black eyes make him a dead ringer for Proust, invests him with a sly half-smirk that makes you recall with dread every stranger who listened to you over cocktails with a rapt attention you recognized all too late as note taking for his next gossiping orgy. This Marcel seems to love women either abstractly or for the masochistic pleasure of suffering, while his homosexuality, repressed and voyeuristic, has him surreptitiously stepping onto a chair to peer at Charlus being whipped by a prole in a male brothel.
It’s an amusing portrait, but a trifling doodle in the context of the movie’s radiant conclusion, in which Marcel/Proust, having discovered his method precisely as his mortal life is slipping away, exchanges despair for elation. The famous madeleine has done its work, and Marcel attends his last soirée, a nightmarishly funny event redeemed by a drawing-room recital that unites Proust the narrator with Marcel and his happy boyhood self. In the heart-stoppingly beautiful final scene, we are reminded that if Proust’s artistic life was set free by a tea-soaked cookie, Ruiz’s was as surely launched by whoever had the foresight to place a camera in his hand.
TIME REGAINED | Directed by RAUL RUIZ | Written by GILLES TAURAND and RUIZ
Based on the novel by MARCEL PROUST | Produced by PAULO BRANCO | Released by Kino International | At Laemmle’s Royal and Laemmle’s Colorado