A literal adaptation of the final book of Marcel Proust's Remembrances of Things Past would be inconceivable and boring, since the tastes and smells which reveal layers of memory cannot be captured onscreen. Raoul Ruiz's Time Regained does the next best thing. Ruiz weaves a fragmented, experimental narrative in the form of a tapestry. There's an uncanny beauty achieved by telling his story in this manner, which reveals thoughts and inactions by using the very limitations of the film medium. He presents us with a series of photographs, or images shot into mirrors or through doorways which open up to the past and present (and cross-cut between the two with relative ease.)
Taking place within the huge estates and manor houses of the cultural elite, with string quartets playing in their studies and tiny cakes neatly arranged on trays in their kitchens, our main character, Marcel (Marcelo Mazzarello) wanders through this world drinking it in. The plot is inconsequential, it is more about observing the crowded rooms and bitten back emotions, the sips of wine and soft handshakes. Every now and then, Marcel is forced to confront his decadent relatives (sneeringly funny John Malkovich and sour Pascal Greggory.)
Ruiz cleverly stages a prologue with the elder Proust (Andre Engel, voiced by filmmaker Patrice Chereau) wasting away in his bedroom, the best years of his life behind him, reciting passages from his book to his servant girl and allowing the objects in the room to trigger thoughts about his family, his would-be lovers (particularly Odette, the woman who haunts him his entire life, played by the elegant Catherine Deneuve) and loved ones, his enemies and his false friends.
Ruiz is a master at keeping his themes and meaning palatable and comprehensible even when shifting from the main character's childhood to middle age, or having the child and adult version of the protagonist onscreen at the same time. It doesn't feel pretentious, since Ruiz clearly has a sincere fondness for this main character. The stand-in for Marcel Proust, Mazzarello, doesn't emote very much as he wanders aimlessly through the elegant locations, but he has deep and friendly eyes and a sad smile half hidden under his moustache.
Marcel finds himself jumping back and forth in these memories, and one starts to wonder how much he has romanticized that past? He may be remarkably similar to the stuffed shirts who surround him, sitting in their circles, smoking cigars and wondering who's who in terms of reputation and their place in the ladder of class structure. Ultimately, those things don't matter, and fade away. In the film's best scene, we see his half mad colleague and former nemesis, Charlus (Malkovich) lead him through the park as they discuss their old friends. "How is this one...? Mort. How is that one? Mort." In the dialogue within this exchange, Proust's philosophy is revealed. Things fade away, and all we have is this small, precious present moment in time - everything else passes into dust.
It's a difficult film to catch hold of, and demands enormous patience and a willingness to allow yourself the ability to drink in this film, as though it were some very rich cake to be savored. It demands to be eaten slowly, and to slowly fill you up. It's not for every occasion, though, or for every audience. Those unwilling to submit to a slow paced, metaphysical project may quickly grow frustrated with this item, but if you allow it to be an interactive experience, you may well consider memories of your own through the process of watching - and that's worth more than any film could offer.
Aka Le temps retrouvé,