While the task of putting Proust on the screen has defeated directors like Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti, Chilean maverick Raoul Ruiz takes a valiant stab at it in “Time Regained.” Not unsuccessful in reproducing the eclectic spirit of “Remembrance of Things Past,” this handsomely mounted period piece nonetheless leaves audiences unfamiliar with that magnum opus at a distinct disadvantage in connecting the dots of its dense, multicharacter semblance of plot. The film is engrossing despite its chaotically fragmented form, and its high-profile cast should open doors in select Euro salles.
A long rumination on the contorted paths of memory and the blurred lines between reality and imagination, the film centers on Proust’s quest to construct a bridge between past — both real and literary — and present as he lies on his death bed in 1922 tended by his maid Celeste.
In an unconstrained, eccentric style, tripping in and out of the past without regard to chronology and tossing in occasional surreal images, Ruiz revisits the writer’s entire life in two hours, 40 minutes.
But as the closing dialogue points out, “To review it would take an eternity.” That may be the main limitation here in adapting such substantial source material. While each of the colorful characters is brought to the fore at various points, the feeling remains that only a fraction of the vast reserves of information written about them is being tapped. This in many ways renders the characters as superficial as the haute-societe world they inhabit.
That decadent world is in a sense the film’s protagonist, and Ruiz paints it as a nest of vain, glamorous vipers and faithless philanderers. Proust himself (Marcello Mazzarella) moves easily among the characters as narrator, observer and confidant. The principal figures include Odette (Catherine Deneuve), who has used her beauty to get what she wants in life; her stepdaughter, Gilberte (Emmanuelle Beart), described as “a sterilized rose” by one acquaintance; and her husband, Saint-Loup (Pascale Greggory), who betrays her with both a theater floozy (Elsa Zylberstein) and a moody young pianist, Morel (Vincent Perez).
Saint-Loup’s passion is for the army, which he perceives as a noble world of men from which women are excluded. The war — which for the most part remains only a topic for discussion and fails to touch directly on the Parisians’ lives — eventually brings about Saint-Loup’s death, freeing Gilberte from her unhappy marriage. Sharing Saint-Loup’s taste for young men, but in more extreme forms, is his sexually depraved uncle, Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich).
Moments from Proust’s childhood frequently surface, but the main focus is his social and literary life as an adult, mapping the changing shape of upper-class French salon society while at the same time examining the writer’s doubts about his work and his difficulty in obtaining a firm grasp of the life he wishes to recount.
This last concern is in essence the element that ultimately ties the film together. The rambling journey of memory associations has no shape or narrative momentum but to a great extent works as an entertaining, mosaic-like social comedy.
Given that characters lapse in and out of view throughout the film, this is very much an ensemble effort, with each character given only a limited opportunity to shine.
Deneuve impresses with her usual poise and cool allure; Beart makes Gilberte a hardened but still human beauty; Perez is amusingly huffy when Morel’s musical talents are eclipsed; and Malkovich is louche and languid, superciliously appraising a receiving line of bordello boys.
Also notable is Marie-France Pisier, as a frivolous socialite who continues gossiping gaily even during funerals, and Italian actor Mazzarella, a remarkable Proust look-alike, who achieves an admirable balance in making the writer both an opaque and a tangible presence. Other characters, including Proust’s great love, Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni), are barely developed.
While it doesn’t have the eye-popping sumptuousness of bigger-budget costumers, the film’s production values are polished, particularly the elegant costumes by Gabriella Pescucci and Caroline de Vivaise. Ruiz’s playful spirit is at work in occasional visual tricks such as revolving the spectators during a music recital.