With Time Regained, director Ra�l Ruiz makes a 180 degree turnaround from his last outing, a forgettable commercial thriller, Shattered Image. Here he takes on the last volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, generally considered to be one of the great literary works of the twentieth century, a huge, multilayered novel with a large cast of characters who interact in patterns of great complexity over many years. No one has dared to attempt the entire work on film; that could only be imagined as a series of several films – a project of such cost and complexity that art film economics would seem to rule out the possibility.
Volker Schlondorff’s 1984 entry, Swann in Love, broached only the first volume and it was rather like a bland hors d’oeuvre in the great feast that is Proust’s masterwork.
Ruiz certainly found devoted investors for his project. Time Regained has been produced lavishly, with a superb cast gorgeously costumed and placed in elegant period interiors.If Schlondorff offered an hors d’oeuvre, then, presumably, with the final volume, Ruiz has cooked up dessert. The problem, of course, is that the main course is missing, and a digestif might be welcome as well.
The intricacies of the changing characters and relationships over the period of the entire novel are all of a piece, each character, each event, each love and each betrayal complexly interwoven. Ruiz has treated the source with great fidelity and respect. His own artistry is evident in the shaded characterizations he draws from his actors, the gentle excursions he makes into surrealistic imagery to suggest thematic lines, and the sure hand with which he creates both intimate scenes and larger ensembles.
Ruiz is adept with the visual (water rushing over the stones in a stream bed, top hats and folded gloves lined up neatly in rows, a broken china cup saved in a wooden box, news footage of the war shown on a large screen in an elegant dining salon, a funeral cortege on a beach) as well as the aural (bells, chimes, a buzzing fly, a wrench clanging on the wheel of a train). And there is the evocative idea of shrapnel from the war shaped into jewelry and great lines like "Heartbreak can kill, but leaves no trace" and "Once you learn not to blush, you will be a perfect gentleman." The director’s creativity and the richness of the source combine to provide a plethora of thoughtful imagery.
The central conceit with which Ruiz tries to unify the film is the character of Proust himself, Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella), the rather passive, but alert observer of the events happening around him. But Time Regained is missing dramatic momentum: it is a beautiful, moody dream-piece that floats amongst its many characters, back and forth in time, without a coherent structure to provide needed cogency. It offers a wealth of imagery and incident that the thoughtful (and patient) viewer can dip into for delicious moments and bits of insight, but – even at some two and three-quarters hours – it doesn’t get to the essential connectivity of Proust’s work. Those with no familiarity with the book will be hard pressed to keep track of who is who, and who is doing what to whom and why.
It may be that Remembrance of Things Past simply cannot survive the transition to the screen. Or, perhaps, a writer/director will yet come along who can successfully transmute the essence of the novel into a work of equal artistry in cinematic terms.