There are some authors whose works are generally considered to be unfilmable, whose writing’s effect is so dependent on the manipulation of language that their core would elude translation to another medium. Often such unfilmable works are filmed anyway, as if to prove the folly of the attempt.
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury has been turned into a turgid soap opera, Joyce’s Ulysses a reading of excerpts accompanied by interesting pictures, Burrough’s Naked Lunch a series of queasy special effects with bits from the author’s life grafted on.
Then there’s Marcel Proust, one of the most recondite of modern authors, an intricate stylist for whom the word “nuance” could have been coined and whose writing seems especially resistant to visualization. But, unlike Volker Schlöndorff’s pedestrian period piece Swann in Love (1984), which is the only other Proust to reach the screen (there have been a few aborted attempts, including one by Luchino Visconti and one by Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter), writer-director Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained is a vigorous attempt to imagine a viewable version of the Proustian world. Although he relies heavily on voice-overs, giving us large helpings of prose to guide us along, Ruiz, who has spent the last 40 years making little-seen but highly praised avant-garde films, has an arsenal of filmic devices to mingle with Proust’s language — multiple exposures, expressive color schemes, pans that contradict the movement within the frame, a pale light that shrouds Cocteau-like statues ...
The film is narrated by Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella, who looks remarkably like the real Proust, with just a dash of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, and whose voice has been dubbed by Patrice Chereau) and it’s his memory of an aristocratic portion of France before, during and just after World War I. The memories come out of order and people appear first old, then young; now enemies, then friends. Marcel has the diffident presence of a naturally sensitive observer (and well-closeted homosexual) and seems to inspire people to confide in him — especially the beautiful Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), the regal Odette (Catherine Deneuve) and the enigmatic and sinister Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich — dubbed by someone whose French has the same sibilant creepiness).
The results aren’t purely Proust, but are as close as can be reasonably expected. And it is prime Ruiz, which is something worth seeing.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].