PROUST CAN CHANGE your life, according to the 1997 book by Allain de Botton, and Chilean-born director Raul Ruiz obviously feels the same way. In his wildly ambitious and vividly realized treatment of both the author and the last volume of Remembrance of Things Past, the Proustian preoccupation with memory infuses and intentionally distorts every scene. We meet Proust on his deathbed, writing madly, reflecting feverishly; the walls and sets move pell-mell like his shifting perspective. Past, present—what's the difference? Life, fiction—it's all the same. Ruiz then thrusts us into the narrative, jumping back and forth temporally with dizzying frequency. Of course there's nothing more Proustian in cinema than the flashback, but Ruiz's cuts and trickery are also influenced by the French New Wave and Borges—willfully jarring us to the next scene without explanation or context. And there's a lot to explain.
directed by Raul Ruiz with Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mazzarella, Emmanuelle B顲t, Vincent Perez, and John Malkovich runs September 15-21 at Egyptian
Most of the 1998 film concerns the decline of an arrogant, frivolous, doomed aristocratic class in WWI-era Paris. Both the German army and the French bourgeoisie threaten the old social order, represented by the querulous, corrupt Baron Charlus (John Malkovich) of the ancient Guermantes clan and his nephew, the bisexual, militaristic Marquis Robert du Saint-Loup. Both men are former lovers of common-born Charlie Morel (Vincent Perez), remaining rivals as a result. Saint-Loup is unfaithfully married to lovely half-Jewish Gilberte (Emmanuelle B顲t), the daughter of aged courtesan Odette (Catherine Deneuve), who still scandalizes polite society with her presence. Amid the their tangled love lives and jealousies, everyone confides in the narrator, Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella), the Proust stand-in who also once loved Gilberte.
Obviously, a prior reading knowledge of Proust helps a great deal in viewing the movie. (Clip and save the above paragraph if you must.) But it's not essential. Though Time is long, French, and entirely elliptical in its narrative, the result is both entertaining and engrossing. Although we don't get to the famous epiphany-inducing madeleine until about two hours in (with a half-hour farcical party sequence to follow), mnemonic associations abound and send the story back and forth. A clinking spoon directs it one way; a broken teacup veers it another. Memory spins like a compass. Ruiz emphasizes the very unreality of the present with a variety of startling visual effects and camera stunts. To paraphrase, all time is contained in every instant of time, and Ruiz largely succeeds in building what Proust called "the vast structure of recollection," brick by brick.
Giving Proust writer's block and a fear of death to conquer does seem an incongruously modern touch, however, as Ruiz makes the entire film a kind of New Age healing odyssey for the dying author. "In this work is all your life," we hear in voice-over, which is meant to reassure Proust that his short, infirm existence was worthwhile and that his opus will grant him immortality. Since readers and viewers are already convinced of this, it seems a somewhat fatuous coda to an otherwise rich and remarkable film.