Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is on his deathbed. Looking at photographs brings memories of his childhood, his youth, his lovers, and the way the Great War put an end to a stratum of society. ... See full summary »
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is on his deathbed. Looking at photographs brings memories of his childhood, his youth, his lovers, and the way the Great War put an end to a stratum of society. His memories are in no particular order, they move back and forth in time. Marcel at various ages interacts with Odette, with the beautiful Gilberte and her doomed husband, with the pleasure-seeking Baron de Charlus, with Marcel's lover Albertine, and with others; present also in memory are Marcel's beloved mother and grandmother. It seems as if to live is to remember and to capture memories is to create a work of great art. The memories parallel the final volume of Proust's novel. Written by
Arguably the greatest adaptation of a classic; certainly the greatest film since CHUNGKING EXPRESS.
At long, long last. In a year of false hopes and broken promises, here is the real thing, a genuine cinematic masterpiece that after one viewing you've only read the introduction. It's everything that art-house cinema is accused of - elitist, over-intellectual, precious, elliptical, methodically paced, privileging mise-en-scene over virtues like plot or motivated characterisation. It is also a model of literary adaptation that will hopefully, once and for all, put certain practitioners out of business; the most visually astonishing (not in the sense of merely beautiful, but achieving effects you didn't think possible), funny and emotional film in years, and the first new film I've wanted to squeeze to my heart since CHUNGKING EXPRESS.
In one way at least, it's even an improvement on Proust's sublime novel, which frequently breaks off to offer remarkable guides on how to write and to live life. These are indispensable to anyone who wants to exist to the full as a human being, but, uncorrected when Proust died, they are often wearingly repetitive and confused.
Ruiz finds economical, jaw-dropping, incisive ways to show what Proust wanted to say. Because this isn't anything so common as a film of the book
it is an interpretation, a deconstruction, a reimagining. Proust, like
Nabokov, sets traps for the unwary reader, and because the narrator seems so convincingly Proustian in the detail, it's easy to confuse him with Proust in the spirit. But M. is a deeply flawed, unreliable narrator who does not always see what's in front of him, who, riven by jealousy, prejudice, snobbery, malady and self-laceration, is not always the most objective observer.
Ruiz emphasises this by foregrounding the seeming differences between himself and Proust as artists: Proust advocates an active, conscious reclamation of ourselves and our pasts; Ruiz, a Surrealist, explores the Unconscious. Proust was the most notorious rewriter in the history of literature, every sentence subjected to the most rigourous scrutiny, yet he died without fully revising Le Temps Retrouve. This leaves the text filled with gaps, omissions, contradictions, 'mistakes', slips, an ultimate loss of control - the perfect ground for a Surrealist excavation.
Ruiz reveals M.'s essential powerlessness, his yielding to the power of the Unconscious; M. thinks he makes a decision to discover the past; Ruiz shows from the very beginning of the film, how he has no choice.
What Surrealism does best is to show the terrifying instability of the seemingly stable, everyday, domestic, fixed. This fits in with Proust's project, because his stepping outside of Time shows how amorphous Time is. A centuries-old society, with huge mansions and manors, inhabited by fixed personnages with fixed names and personalities, in a significant period (the Belle Epoque giving onto World War One) is actually shown to be deeply unstable, perceived as it is though the mind of M., who is constantly changing - his social status his body (through sickness), his self-perception and view of the world and of literature etc.
The opening sequence is masterly illustrative. The real Proust lies in the near-dark in bed, wheezingly ill, reciting his work to his faithful servant, Celeste. Here is an image of wholeness, fact, legend - a great writer writes his great book. But the scene is riven with instability: Proust lies immobile in his bed, while his objects and ornaments move freely around the room.
This is a motif that reverberates throughout the film, the elegant freedom of the dominating, crowding bibelots, and the rigid, sterile, geometrical movements of the people who are supposed to own them. But it also shows a heartening split between mind and body: while the latter lies inert and dying, the former remains vibrant and transformative.
Where to begin with Ruiz's awe-inspiring masterwork? The sublime play with mirrors and cameras, revealing great truths about perception, deception, mediation, objectivity, subjectivity, revelation and concealment? The play of different selves throughout the film, where the monstrously aged, through memory, can return to their former beautiful selves, culminating in an astonishing climactic sequence where M. in his three guises (protagonist/narrator of the film (even this is split, narrated in voiceover by a different person), the author of the book-film, and himself as a young man that allows the other two to exist) as he wanders, Alice-like (a haunting, Surrealist presence thoughout the film) through the classical ruins of time, linked to the impossibility of one, fixed work of art?
The complex analysis of role-play, on the one hand liberating one from a fixed self, on the other repressing one (in terms of social positoin, reputation etc.)? The role of of reenactment in the recovery of the past, and its transmutation through subjective perception? The subtle changes and omissions that Ruiz deliberately employs to interrogate the emphasis of Proust's work? The connection between voyeurism (existing in a society like being imprisoned in a panopoticon), and the necessary observation of the artist to reveal truth?
Ruiz's canny casting, emphasising allusive qualities, e.g. mother and daughter Deneuve, and a hero played by a man with a similar name to their lover/husband? Alain Robbe-Grillet, doyen of formal games in country houses? Edith Scob, Franju muse of broken, fragile beauty, playing dessicated Oriane? the link between the narrator, director Patrice Chereau, and two of the film's stars who have also appeared in one of his films?
The profusion of different artforms which combine to create a moment of such great emotion that I, with M. cried? The teasing play between the protagonist, his creator and this film's creator? The amusing variations on the theme of prostitution? The film's action actually only consists of three elaborate episodes, but the plot floods with the past and the future, the real and imagined, the fictional and historical (or, more correctly, meta-fictional), theory and practice.
It should not be forgotten that there are other, simpler pleasures beloved of historical-film fans - the country-houses with their astonishing avenues; the town mansions with their vast halls; the choreography of the party scenes; the sublime costumes; the elaborate recreation of a time and place. The film is very funny as well as deeply emotional, and though pawns in a Surrealist game, the wonderful actors reveal great depth, although Marcello Mazzerella stands out as a hero more sympathetic than Proust's. But it is Ruiz who is the real star, locating the hidden meaning of the book with startling, disturbing, enigmatic, elegantly polished images, as well as a rare ravishing feel for both nature and artifice.
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