Le temps retrouvé
Review by Wenkai Tay
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source 35mm print, screened at 13th EU Film Fest 2003, Singapore
Consider the voluminous cycle of novels In Search of Lost Time by French writer Marcel Proust. The work spans a total of over four thousand pages, and notoriously rivals Joyce’s Ulysses in unreadability. Consider the near impossibility of condensing most all of this into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.
The film Time Regained is an ambitious attempt at adapting Proust’s monolithic literary creation into a movie, beginning from the last novel in the series. Proust is considered to be difficult, even by the French. So who would have thought his novels would find cinematic expression in a movie starring French screen goddesses Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart?
Time Regained traces the life of Proust’s protagonist, a writer named Marcel. As he lies on his deathbed looking at old photos he recalls his experiences and thinks of the women he loved.
The story spins a web of desire and jealousy: Marcel’s passion for the classy Odette, the aloof Gilberte, and the hot-blooded Albertine. It also explores the love triangle between the military man Robert de Saint-Loup, the rich Baron de Charlus, and their shared fascination with the violinist Morel. Beyond this, Time Regained lacks a discernible plot structure, taking instead the free-form of memory. This disjointed method of storytelling, coupled with the excessive use of flashbacks, is particularly disorienting. Flitting in and out of plot strands, weaving through the threads of Marcel’s jumbled recollections, the movie slowly starts to make sense.
The story gives the audience a glimpse into French high society of Proust’s day, illuminating the absurdity of life itself, depicting the banality of banquets, the petty gossip, and the insipid dinner table conversations. Ironically, the frivolity of French society life over a century ago is a fitting parable for modern times.
While the message of the movie is not altogether original, the visuals are stunning. The creative team pays attention to the composition of every frame. For instance, the scenes at the seaside town of Balbec, representing Marcel’s recollections of his childhood days, are filmed in mellow sepia tones, just like an old photograph. But some scenes are truly bizarre. One shot displays party guests frozen in time, another shows broken teacups filled with coins. A third shows Marcel walking into a room with a black-and-white checkerboard floor that is filled with black top hats and white gloves. At many points in the movie, objects that ought to be stationary appear to be moving. The meaning of these shots is stubbornly ambiguous.
The bewildered audience, however, is rewarded with fine acting by a parade of dazzling French greats. Catherine Deneuve, the grand dame of French cinema, lends weight to her role, while Emmanuelle Beart injects a dose of youth and vivacity. Still, the women are cast in largely supporting roles. In contrast, the men are given much more room to explore different perspectives into homosexuality. Vincent Perez makes a passionate violinist Morel, while Pascal Greggory plays Robert de Saint-Loup as a classy, quietly confident man. But it is non-Francophone John Malkovich who takes the cake, playing the intense, extreme, enigma-of-a-man Charlus, who constantly demands our attention, in spite of his foreign accent.
The strong characterizations, however, do not make up for the problems inherent in adapting Proust’s work. The sheer length of the cycle of novels necessitates lengthy exposition on the background of Marcel Proust’s novels. As the movie begins the story from the last novel in the cycle, the script is forced to telescope the events of the previous novels in the series into a coherent whole. Consequently, the movie lacks balance and proper pacing. Some major characters don’t appear as often as they ought to, while minor ones keep on popping up at irrelevant points, leaving the audience floundering in a flurry of characters.
To be fair, Proust has something to say about life, and just because Proust’s message is hard to articulate or understand doesn’t make it any less important. But this does not reduce the tedium of Proust’s dense text, a work that is difficult to work through and not necessarily amenable to cinematic adaptation. In spite of all that, Time Regained does a commendable job at transposing the novel onto the big screen, and is remarkably faithful to Proust’s convoluted original.