Bright Lights Film Journal

Proust Regained: On Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained and Filming the Unfilmable

“In a single bold stroke, Ruiz films the novel according to the play of images, feelings, scents, and tastes that Marcel experiences.”

1.

An attempt to film Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is doomed to fail. No cinematic equivalent to Proust’s prose nor the time one must take to read the million and a half words can have a cinematic equivalent. It took me five weeks to read Swann’s Way, and I only finished The Past Recaptured several years later. The ultimate folly would be to finish with anything related to Proust in two-and-a-half hours. Neither would things be made right by creating an experience in which the audience felt as if it had been watching a film for months! Better, perhaps only slightly but better, would be the feeling that you never want the film to end.

Cinematic translation of a novel tries to link the film’s images to the novel’s actions and images with less regard to the prose style, and even with the latter the filmmaker searches for an analog for the prose. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Remembrance is primarily about the writing: extraordinarily long sentences in which Proust creates both stunning complexities of thought and emotion as well as conceptual clarity. Ten pages an hour represents a good pace for the reader of Proust. Again, how can a two- to three-hour film possibly approach this issue?

Consequently, a film like Volker Schlondorff’s Swann in Love (1984) attaches itself to Proust’s dramatic composition and his grandiose characters: Swann and Odette, Madame Verdurin, and the incomparable Baron de Charlus. To portray these people twisting through Parisian salons and society entails the evacuation of Proust’s poetics to dwell on the jealousies, betrayals, loves, and despairs. This may be true for all adaptations but infinitely so for any adaptation of Proust. A popular or classic book jettisons a film as boosters do a rocket, then the novel fades away and the filmed version of the novel lives on in perpetuity being judged good or not good enough if not having failed completely, a process which in itself is incomplete since the film (the rocket) and the book (the boosters) have separate functions.

Remembrance seems most unapproachable for anyone to make a film that must appeal to many people. If there were a public anticipating a Proust movie, it would include few Proust readers! Should the filmmaker care for nothing else but realizing Proust’s aims, the final dramatic revelation in the novel appears doubly unfilmable. First, the narrator earns his realization after having written a million-and-a-half words! Secondly, the realization is purely aesthetic, giving justification to nothing save the novel itself. All other dramatic action — loves, betrayals, death — are given meaning only through the narrator’s own insight. What this insight is, whatever wisdom it may contain, proves to be inconsequential. We are more greatly involved in how he got there than what he tells us when he got there: namely, who is married to whom, or what happened to someone, or what is the sexual orientation of a character, or etc.

2.

Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999) seems doomed to fail as it recreates the final novel, The Past Recaptured, for no other reason than that its climactic point is the narrator’s, Marcel’s, dramatic revelation. Two movies in 1991, Barton Fink and Naked Lunch, also had writers as protagonists, blocked writers trying to regain their form. Marcel’s block has nothing to do with being able to write, producing words, but with finding meaning for his great writing project. His physical decrepitude has forced an urgency to his work in a double sense. On the one hand, he hopes to finish the work before he dies. Yet, composing this monstrous work, he wonders what’s the use, what’s the purpose, since everything — Paris society, his novel, his friendships, his loves — will pass away without a trace. The aesthetic sleight of hand is, of course, that Proust knows from the start when and where his narrator will find this meaning. José Ortega y Gasset wrote in his essay, “Notes on Thinking”: “If thinking is movement not toward something else but toward itself, and if it has therefore from the outset reached the intended end, this end being the very thinking, we come to the result that the process of thinking consists in an incessant renewal of the same movement.”1 Precisely is the process Proust’s novel describes.

We first see Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella) in bed, seemingly near death. When he’s well enough to attend a party, several people had assumed that he had died. His writing health is similarly drained and weakened. In the opening scene, he dictates his novel to a secretary and subsequently checks photographs of many of the characters we will meet later: Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), Robert de Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), his parents and grandmother. In some ways, he is looking for inspiration, trying to fire up memories of past encounters. This will be the antithesis of the method he would discover to regain the past: the involuntary memory. Ruiz’s method to dramatize the events in Time Regained will cue itself from this discovery. In a single bold stroke, he films the novel according to the play of images, feelings, scents, and tastes that Marcel experiences. This means, however, the film will be nearly impossible to follow, even for the Proust devotee.

However, I read the last novel after having seen the film three times and was amazed how closely the script followed it. But I wondered how many people have read The Past Recaptured recently? Enough to justify a monumental production? Could the film, at 186 minutes, be followed let alone understood by anyone? Yes, Ruiz uses the material and conversations from the novel. An amazing amount of conversations — word for word! More, he shows the Parisian society in all of its hypocrisy, chauvinism, backbiting, snobbery, and lust. Perhaps this will string along a few people. Perhaps the masochistic antics of Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich) and the homosexuality of Robert de Saint-Loup will excite another pack of viewers.

These considerations dumbfounded me while watching the first few scenes of Time Regained. I thought that I could not continue watching it. What was the point? I could not keep the time scheme straight, especially when, during a salon concert featuring Charles Morel (Vincent Perez), Odette (Catherine Deneuve) advances to a door, opens it, and we see Marcel as a child with his mother, then Marcel is in a room with top hats. I could not make sense of it. This was proof. It was folly to film Proust.

I continued watching, fascinated by the inherent problems of making visual continuity from the potentially infinite Proustian passages. Many of the early scenes revolve around Marcel’s unrequited desire for Gilberte. He has returned from the sanitarium prior to the start of World War I and visits her. She is married to Saint-Loup, who is making a show of having an affair with Rachel (Elsa Zylberstein). Gilberte betrays to Marcel many anxieties culminating in Gilberte dressing exactly like Robert’s mistress. Marcel’s memory gets a whiff of another love gone astray: Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni). Along with the party at the Guermantes and Marcel finding inspiration in the Goncourt Journals, which recall the salons haunted by a younger Madame Verdurin, Swann, and Odette, Ruiz delicately begins to weave a discernible thread between the present and past and captures a vital element of Proust’s structure and style.

Yet, even before Baron de Charlus enters the film, I found Time Regained acting on and stimulating me in a way unlike any other film I could remember. I had read many works that had been adapted to the screen, and the interplay left vivid impressions of the book. Two of the earliest were Fail-Safe (1964) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). I had seen these in high school and at that age was deeply impressed by how close the adaptations were to the novels. But the greatest novel adaptation of my generation (one rivaling Gone with the Wind of yesteryear) was The Godfather (1972). Unlike the aforementioned films, Coppola’s film, like David O. Selznick’s, had much higher stakes. Such an immensely popular novel needed greater production values to keep up with the public imagination. Remembrance of Things Past, as it is presented with Time Regained, works antithetically to The Godfather and Gone with the Wind adaptations. I had mentioned that the makers of the latter movies appealed and responded to a grand public imagination created by the books. For example, who would play Rhett, Scarlett, Vito, and Michael? Proust’s work did not have a “bestseller” kind of public but, instead, a substantial number of individual readers who cared about the writing above all. At the most, reviewers have compared Alain Delon’s Charlus in Swann in Love to Malkovich’s, but this developed after the fact. Raoul Ruiz could not depend on affecting all the readers of Proust in the same way. This is why my own reaction to the film started to fascinate me. I wondered whether Ruiz intended this. If so, it would have been very brave to adapt a novel incredibly difficult if not impossible to film, and then intend to produce a response in the viewer that was completely personal. By this I mean that Time Regained works in such a way as to stimulate the Proust reader — the Proust reader alone!

The individual’s response to the film involves — and here’s the aesthetic loop the loop — the type of memory and remembrance Marcel experiences during the film. For the first hour, especially, when the characters are introduced and their actions develop, I started thinking about them and, ashamedly, had to admit to myself that I remembered little from the novel. After more scenes, a clearer picture of the last book, The Past Recaptured, developed in my mind. Marcel, at this party, meets the widowed Gilberte. At some point, he would have a vision of his entire work. Yet, as the film continued, I had great difficulty sorting out the episodes and chronology. I would have to see it three more times and write down each scene to get some grip on the whole thing.

3.

The following was written about Time Regained: “Summary: boring movie about boring people leading boring lives.” Such a harsh statement enunciates the standards of a viewer who waits for a film to create the response or, in the words of many critics, “a great ride.” This same viewer continues: “I think a movie where nothing happens should create a special atmosphere, visualize vague feelings, transfer some kind of poetry or something — that’s where it failed almost completely for me.”2 I agree that one’s evaluation should be pivoted on an absolutely subjective response. The problem is that one might have a dim or absent knowledge of Proust, not that a thorough knowledge of Remembrance of Things Past would make Time Regained any less daunting. Rather, the comment is informed by familiarity with Seinfeld and its infamous “nothing premise.” Albeit, the Proustian “nothing” has Gilberte instead of Elaine, Marcel instead of Jerry, Saint-Loup instead of George Costanza, and Baron de Charlus as Kramer! Nothing happens: no “special atmosphere,” too many “vague feelings,” and a complete wanting of “some kind of poetry or something.” Why doesn’t the Baron crash into Marcel’s room and drag him out by the scruff of the neck? Of course, we know Marcel cannot get back with Gilberte, is enamored with Albertine, and certainly will never marry. Saint-Loup and Marcel eat in a restaurant talking about “nothing” as Saint-Loup devours the food as if it’s his last meal. Let’s face it, this French “nothing” cannot compare to the American.

Roger Ebert, on the other hand, penned a strong, very positive review, also having a subjective response pervade his critical opinion. He recalls his teenage years — actually writing the review while he attends his high school reunion! Ebert understands the importance of the “nothing” happening on the screen, as well as the limits of making a film adaptation of Proust. The review, though, tends to respond too much to the book, particularly when he makes the following salient point:

I saw my parents on the porch in metal rocking chairs, smoking cigarettes in the dark, talking softly. Where my car was parked there was a light green 1954 Ford — mine. Those memories are what Proust’s novel is about. Not his memories, mine.3

With or without Proust we will have memories. Remembrance of Things Past and its gloriously massive chronicle of boring people invest into something meaningful through a radically subjective experience. How willing are we, the readers, going to take this subjectivity? Will we, like the first reviewer, wait for the poetry and special atmosphere as if it could be found, alternatively, at the Universal Studios theme park? Or, like Ebert, will we take our own imagination to the work itself? Proust’s work is more than a stroll down memory lane. The catalyst for his confrontation with life’s sheer nothingness is the eating of the madeleine — more, eating the cake initiates the involuntary memory, which does not necessarily equate with nostalgia and, more importantly, does not necessarily take us where we want to go. We yield our will to the unwilling memory theatre; we do not call the shots. Meaning veers from self-evident channels to more complicated inventions.

For Ebert and many other critics, Time Regained rightly referred them to the novel. The impossibility of filming Proust ultimately has less to do with the massive “nothing” a filmmaker must include and more with contending with the impact the novel has on the reader. How can a critic or any viewer, outside of knowing nothing about Proust and miraculously overcoming the lack of special somethings, respond to Ruiz’s film? I, too, nostalgically recalled Marcel, Gilberte, Saint-Loup, Charlus, Odette, Madame Verdurin, and Morel. Especially during the first forty minutes, I tried to find the “special values” when there was little to affix my comprehension of the shifting scenes and chronology. Only as I released myself from the novel’s weight could I recall its splendor within my life.

4.

It occurred to me during the first viewing, as I became more familiar with the characters — that is, re-familiarizing myself with the seemingly endless numbers who figure largely in the book — something else entered my mind and fought for primacy among my thoughts about Proust’s work. Namely, I recalled, every few minutes, what I was doing and where I had read Remembrance of Things Past. Watching Time Regained incited my involuntary memory to picture places and feelings I had experienced twenty-five to thirty years ago.

I had read Swann’s Way three times, twice during my college years (in two different courses), as it took that many readings to understand Proust’s aesthetic and, similar to watching the film, to sort out the characters and plots. Although the activities of Swann, Odette, and the others at Madame Verdurin’s salon subsume Marcel, the gate of memory opens early when Marcel eats the madeleine. The taste of the cake takes him back to his childhood and, specifically, his feeling of loneliness when his mother and father go out for the evening. Time Regained reproduces this episode as well as another instance of the involuntary memory when, seeing an advertisement in a Paris park, Marcel immediately remembers a time along the seacoast when he was a teenager. Likewise, I watched the film and recalled sitting in Pattee Library, facing the central campus mall at Penn State, and reading the second novel, Within a Budding Grove. This novel was the most important one for me to start and finish, if I were to be able to read Remembrance in its entirety. The title itself was daunting. Without a specific name (Swann, Guermantes) or action (The Sweat Cheat Gone, The Past Recaptured) or an allusive title (The Cities of the Plain, The Captive), and given its formidable length, I did not think that I could get sufficiently interested to carry me to The Guermantes Way. I had specifically read Swann’s Way the third time to get a running start for Within a Budding Grove.

But when did I find the time to read these volumes? Yes, I picked up Within a Budding Grove where I went to college, but it was the year after I had graduated. I found a job and joined the nine-to-five commuter world for six months and then decided that graduate school seemed a better option. I quit the job and would not work regular hours at a full-time career job for another fifteen years. Without creating this open time, I would never have had a chance at finishing Proust.4 As I watched Time Regained, I thought about myself, legs propped on the steel heater/cooler vents below the sealed windows in the library, remembering how I would catch myself thinking: what am I, twenty-two years old, doing, spending hours day after day here reading Proust? I started The Guermantes Way before I packed up and left State College for the summer. I returned two years later, a graduate school dropout, and returned to the same spot and finished The Captive and The Sweat Cheat Gone. After a winter traveling in Europe, I returned to the Jersey Shore, and my singular largest source of income, and finally spent an intense eight days reading and finishing The Past Recaptured.

At the end of every book, one feels relief, sadness, perhaps a let down or a surge of pleasure, but the arduous trek through Proustian passages that never seem to end made the finishing of Remembrance an incredibly sad occasion. Also, I was unaware of the price I would pay for reading Proust (and Faulkner); namely, I had paralyzed my writing effort. Proust had leveled me in a literary equivalent of the 1910 explosion in Siberia, just as Nabokov would intimidate me when I read all his work a few years later. I mentioned Faulkner parenthetically, but his work more than Proust’s created writer’s block at an inopportune time: I was in an M.F.A. writing program.

This leveling imbued Proust’s style and perceptions on my consciousness. Seeing Gilberte onscreen reminded me of Within a Budding Grove and Marcel’s attempts to get to know her. The frustration of young love with which I could easily identify back to my own timid teenage desires. Especially depressing was Gilberte’s destiny to be so close socially to Marcel, and then to have her marry Robert Saint-Loup, who deceives her in multiple ways but never enough to kindle a desire for Marcel. But more than unrequited teenage love, I lived many of my relations in my first ten post-college years under Remembrance of Things Past‘s influence. As a relationship grew, tensed up, or collapsed, I seemed to be reading my life as it was happening. I habitually noted the pages and often wrote entire passages that impressed me with their insights, many of them on aspects of love, in the back of the books.

I had guessed long ago in the Champs-Elysees and had since established to my own satisfaction, that when we are in love with a woman we simply project into her a state of our own soul, that the important thing is, therefore, not the worth of the woman but the depth of the state[.] (299)

I wondered, though, could the same be said for one’s love of a work of art? Perhaps, in a sense I will describe later, the greatness of the work is a projection of our commitment to its insights in and effects on oneself, and, as would be the case in either instance, no amount of projection can convince enough people of its worth except for a little while. What survives longer: works that are critically but not popularly accepted, or the reverse?

Another instance of Proust’s (right) insight came when he described his general attraction to Albertine:

If in this craze for amusement Albertine might be said to echo something of the old original Gilberte, that is because a certain similarity exists, although the type evolves, between all the women we love, a similarity that is due to the fixity of our own temperament, which it is that chooses them, eliminating all those who would not be at once our opposite and complement, fitted that is to say to gratify our senses and to wring our heart. (342-343)

Watching Time Regained, I recalled the customary pattern of my relationships during the decade and a half starting with college and how Proust’s passages clarified the path I followed in matters of love, not that I could control myself once I saw my follies before me.

One of the lingering emotions to emerge, especially around the time the love relationship ends, is jealousy. The Captive, as a whole, describes Marcel’s attempt to dominate absolutely Albertine’s emotions. His great illusion, presented in a near epic scale, is believing by keeping her captive she will love him. For me, jealousy entered automatically when I knew I no longer had my lover’s complete attention. I imagined the world conspiring against me to deprive me of her presence and love. Proust states the matter baldly: “My jealousy was born of mental images, a form of self-torment not based on probability.” I have never felt more ashamed than when I recall my relationships within that time period. How could have I convinced myself of such things? How could I believe she would actually care enough to hurt me in the ways I believe she went out of her way to do so? Worse, why did I feel that the love of one particular person was so necessary for me to live or to live contentedly? “I was as careless as everyone who imagines that his happiness will endure.” (53)

Reading Proust, the act of reading the seven volumes in the Vintage editions, required such complete immersion that I sat for hours in a room, lounge, or library oblivious to the passage of time. I used to think of writing as a weak way to attain immortality, to leave something behind that marked my existence.5 Proust gradually worked on me to take another view, best described in one of the key passages of The Past Recaptured:

A minute freed from the order of time has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time. And one can understand that this man should have the confidence in his joy, even if the simple taste of a Madeleine does not seem logically to contain within it the reasons for this joy, one can understand that the word “death” should have no meaning for him; situated outside time, why should he fear the future? (134)

A life dedicated to literature and art, I thought then, meant all things must give way to aesthetic consideration. Nothing was pertinent — life, religion, politics, marriage, history, death — without it. Art justifies human existence. Ruiz’s film captures part of Marcel’s revelation, the freedom from death, but it is a rhetorical, not a cinematic, revelation. What Time Regained accomplishes, though, is nearly as effective. It displaces the novel’s impact on the viewer, a delicate maneuver that can only be sensed by the reader of Proust. This is why I said earlier that Raul Ruiz accomplished one of the most courageous ventures in film history. First, to take on Proust, a complete impossibility; then, to allow the film’s satisfactions to be communicated only to select viewers.

Marcel’s epiphany during the party creates the analogue for our own epiphany as the film provides an entrance into the pure experience of regaining Proust! In Paul West’s The Secret Lives of Words, his entry for “circumflex” describes the nature of the film’s delicate maneuver:6

in French it warns of a missing ‘s’ (maestro has become maitre), say, and literally does what its etymology specifies: it bends around the gap and holds the two severed parts together, as from circus (around) + flexure (bend). It literally bends itself around the breach; the past participle is circumflexes — a bending around. (62)

And it is this very experience, the discovery of the meaning of the narrator’s experiences, that Ruiz circumflexes into the viewer’s discovering how the novel affected one so profoundly.

The breach between reading Proust and watching a film of his work becomes the very memory of reading the novel. We are never too arrested by the “nothing” of Proust’s social denizens nor too diverted by remembering the literary magnificence of Proust’s writing. In fact, we regain the discipline and instruction from Remembrance of Things Past to learn from life in the other direction, the direction to which the involuntary memory leads us, forward, away from the protocol of the future.

  1. In Concord and Liberty, translated by Helene Weyl. New York: Norton, 1946. []
  2. Found at the Internet Movie Database. []
  3. Found here. []
  4. The older I have gotten, the shorter the books I want to read. It would seem inconceivable to start Proust after one is forty years old. It would be as if a person that age suddenly desired to enter the NBA or the NFL. Also, another option, taken by a friend, could have been to read Proust on the job. He finished two volumes this way. Books I have read while at work usually were less demanding than Proust. At a part-time job at a sporting goods store to support my first attempt at a graduate degree, I went through four volumes of Orwell’s Essays, Letters, and Journalism. []
  5. I have never given much credence to books “changing” one’s life. Some have had historical consequences, but I suspect anyone who is susceptible to propaganda (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or theoretical schemes about the nature of society (Das Kapital). Actually, I have been dumbfounded by the lack of consequences modern literature has had on the twentieth century. The critical view of the twenties materialism — the Lost Generation writers — has not curtailed the materialism. The Great Depression did. Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac did not curb the same enthusiasm for owning things after World War II. Perhaps this is the extent of my romanticism. I believed novels should make a difference to the society. How unimaginable it seems to have a world in which Proust’s work changed how we view things, especially time. []
  6. Paul West, The Secret Lives of Words. New York: Harcourt, 2001. []