NYFF '99 REVIEW: A Haunting, Rambling Vision of Proust's "Time Regained"
by David Bourgeois
For ardent aficionados of the French novelist Marcel Proust, Raoul Rúiz's latest epic will seem like a glorious and much treasured gift. Unfortunately for those unfamiliar with the author of such works as "A Remembrance of Things Past," and "Time Regained" (a work published posthumously in 1927), words such as "confusing," "incoherent" and "rambling" will likely dash about your head as you watch; the uninitiated will struggle to find a beginning, middle and end.
Like a sagely father guiding a petulant child through an amusement park, Rúiz, the Chilean-born, French-language director of such wanderlust as "The Golden Boat" and "Three Lives and Only One Death," confidently guides the viewer through the cerebral goings-on in Proust's subconscious.
The film opens with Proust, played perfectly by relative newcomer Marcello Mazzarella, on his deathbed in France in 1922. Bleary-eyed, he beckons his nurse to fetch a packet of photos, and so begins the journey down remembrance lane. In a long series of flashbacks, we see him mingling with both real characters he met throughout his life and fictional ones. For those whose last remembrance of Proust was in college, it will be nearly impossible to tell which characters are fictional and which are real. In the end, though, if you let yourself experience each scene as if it were a chapter in a book or short story, the film takes on a certain uneasy, voyeuristic pleasure. No need to frantically connect the dots (as this critic tried to do in vain), it's more interesting wondering who all the dots are.
The casting choices in the film are especially adroit. Aside from the staid Mazzarella -- a dead-ringer for Proust, down to his trademark curly-cue mustache -- the film has a remarkable ensemble cast, including Emmanuelle Béart, Catherine Deneuve, Pascal Greggory and Vincent Pérez. The most interesting casting choice, however, was that of American John Malkovich, who plays the unctuous, gay lothario Charlus, a well to do who is into boys and S&M, in that order. (Malkovich, who lives in France, seemed proficient enough in the language, but in several scenes his voice was dubbed by a more "French sounding" actor.) His performance is just the right amount of restraint, hype and savvy.
As Proust wanders through pre-war Paris, he meets a dizzying array of eccentric aristocrats. When Malkovich subtly puts the moves on him, Proust faintly smiles, flattered at the attention. This encounter piques his interest, so he clandestinely follows Malkovich to an all-boy brothel and peers into the room to watch him getting whipped by his young male lover.
Other vignettes feature Proust sipping tea and flirting with the very comely and full-lipped Béart, a woman he claims to love, but someone who quickly falls out of the picture. In fact, for all the sexual innuendo that permeates the film, it's interesting that we never even see Proust embrace anyone, let alone have any sexual relations. Toward the end of the film, it seems as if he's about to profess his undying love for the ravishing Catherine Deneuve, but again, they fall just short of dashing away from a boring recital and having a tryst. And after all, who's to say if she really exists or if she is simply a character in the attic of his mind.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, "Time Regained" is not for the faint-hearted and especially not for those without working knowledge of Proust and the time in which he lived. Perhaps it's this reason that the film still lacks a distributor. Should it fail to get one, audiences will miss a unique opportunity to revisit the ether-filled hauntings of France's legendary novelist.
[David Bourgeois is a freelance film critic who has covered the Cannes Film Festival since 1992 and has written and reported for Spy, Spin, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Interview, US, New York magazine, and Film Threat, among others.]