For years, the cognoscenti have agreed on two things about Marcel Proust’s epic 2,500-page, seven-volume semi-autobiographical novel A la recherché du temps perdu – it’s the greatest novel ever written and it’s un-filmable.
Over the decades, the challenge of putting Proust on screen has tempted and frustrated an impressively high-calibre list of filmmakers. Luchino Visconti planned a version with Dirk Bogarde in the early 1970s but failed to get financing, and Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey fell victim to the same fate a few years later. In 1983 Volker Schlöndorff made a good stab at adapting the first volume for the screen as Swann in Love, casting Jeremy Irons in the lead and limiting the action to the course of one day. But the director who has come closest to achieving the impossible is the French-based Chilean director Raul Ruiz with Time Regained, his 1999 adaptation of the last volume, Le temps retrouvé.
Admittedly, Ruiz’s film is long, slow and demanding, as you’d expect from a director renowned for a career of making often-impenetrable avant-garde films. His impressionistic approach may baffle viewers unfamiliar with the novel, but he came closer to translating to the screen Proust’s endlessly subtle exploration of memory than anyone else has so far managed.
The film opens in post-First World One Paris with the dying, bed-ridden Proust looking through photographs of the people in his life (and novel). A chain of associations develops, linking his childhood in the village of Combray and on the beach at the resort of Balbec with adult visits before and during the war to the glittering Parisian salons of the aristocracy and the nouveau riche.
Startling dream-like images abound: a room bizarrely filled with top hats and white gloves; ghostly figures in evening dress crowded in a doorway, their faces like alabaster. The casting also provides potent resonances, with striking appearances from such icons as Catherine Deneuve, in the role of the glamorous, ageless cocotte Odette, Emmanuele Béart as her daughter Gilberte, and John Malkovich as the mannered, camp Baron Charlus. Surprisingly, Ruiz’s surreal, allusive approach weaves together more of the novel’s themes and plot strands than you would have thought possible. For those not expecting a straightforward, linear narrative, Time Regained is as delicious as a Madeleine dipped in tea.
Released on DVD on 7th September.