Raúl Ruiz frequently remarked that he was the perfect person to adapt Marcel Proust’s vast set of novels Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) to the screen because, having reached the end of reading the entire work, he instantly forgot it all. He was joking, of course, but his jest disguised a serious method. The only way to convey Proust on screen, in Ruiz’s opinion, was to approach it not as a literal condensation of multiple characters and events, but as a psychic swirl of half-remembered, half-forgotten fragments and impressions—full of uncanny superimpositions and metamorphoses. “‘The best way to adapt something for film,” he summed up, “is to dream it.”
Ruiz’s dreaming was always accompanied by extensive, meandering, seemingly eccentric research. In the case of Time Regained, he plunged (as he revealed in a splendid, lengthy interview with Jacinto Lageira and Gilles Tiberghien) into the diverse philosophical theories of time offered by Immanuel Kant and Henri Bergson; into the scientific and mathematical writings of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Kurt Gödel; and into the accounts of visions recorded by religious mystics—since, as Ruiz reasoned, “we are dealing with what is, above all, a mystical text.”
He even dipped into the annals of early film theory, discovering (thanks to a suggestion from Jonathan Rosenbaum) the 1946 essay by Jacques Bourgeois in La Revue du cinéma titled “Proust and Cinema”. Bourgeois’ piece confirmed for Ruiz two of his deepest, longstanding intuitions about the medium of film: that all images, even if they are signalled as flashbacks to the narrative’s past, “happen” for the spectator in an eternal present; and that, in a movie, there is a split between its tableau aspect (the period setting, the costumes, places, and so on), and its narrative aspect (everything that happens and moves forward in the plot). With the caveat that, in Ruiz’s mind, it was always preferable to treat the narrative as a fixed tableau, and give the setting its own strange, teeming life.
It is in this mélange of wildly diverse knowledge-systems, hunches, and values that Ruiz, in collaboration with screenwriter Gilles Taurand (who has also worked for André Téchiné and Benoît Jacquot) fashioned a very coherent and consistent way of adapting Proust for the screen. Concentrating on the “digest” offered in the final volume, Time Regained, and using that as a launch-pad from which to conjure the entire Proustian panorama, Ruiz dreamed up his vision of a film where “nothing really important happens”:
Everything goes back to the point of departure, because we constantly return to childhood, to a detail or experience that possesses the signs of a repetition – those cyclical elements which form, ultimately, the substance of the tableau. That’s how I filmed Proustian narration: as a tableau. All these narrations, brief and fleeting, of no importance, end up creating an image without movement. Rather, it is in the Proustian descriptions – particular elements of environment, costume, character – that we can find, if I can put it this way, the action. Shifts, movements, incidents, sidelong details – all of these are in the tableau; while everything that is static, even ecstatic, is in the narrative.
Ruiz’s Time Regained—in order to guarantee both the circularity of time, and the uncanny effect of multiple events happening and overlaying themselves all at once—gives us not one but four incarnations of Proust as a character. He figures as a child (Georges du Fresne), an adult (Marcello Mazzarella), as a bedridden, dying old man (André Engel); and also as a voice-over, read by celebrated filmmaker and theater director Patrice Chéreau. When two or more of these Proust-versions inhabit the same scene (as in the sublime finale), the film achieves its most lyrical, Ophülsian flourishes of style. Enjoying the evident correspondence between Proust’s decadent aristocrats and the media “celebrities” of our time, Ruiz took full advantage of what was, for him, a star-studded cast: Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Edith Scob.
It is rare indeed for films that offer a “critical reading” of their esteemed literary source material to be widely successful with a general audience—especially when that critical reading is as intricate and intertwined as the one Ruiz assembled here. As we all know, at the end of the day, the old-fashioned criterion of “fidelity to the novel”—to either its literal events, or its amorphous “spirit”—still reigns supreme in the reactions of most moviegoers to adaptations of the “great books.” But Ruiz’s Time Regained was a surprising commercial success, effectively launching a new (and more handsomely resourced) chapter in the director’s career. Producer Paulo Branco took an inspired risk in putting Ruiz (rather than a more recognisably “French” filmmaker) at the helm of this project, and granting him (as he did also with Manoel de Oliveira and Chantal Akerman) complete artistic freedom.
What is most impressive is that even many fans and connoisseurs of the novel went away satisfied with Ruiz’s “take” on what had long been considered—in the light of the unmade adaptations by Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey, and the weak Volker Schlöndorff effort, Swann in Love (1984)—a completely unfilmable literary property. The beloved characters, the famous motifs (such as the memory-triggering madeleine), the tersely melodramatic situations: Ruiz respected enough of that “to the letter” in order to win the right to his surreal arabesques and dreamlike variations on the given material. Specialists in both Proust and cinema even found pleasing correspondences between the structure of the novelist’s lengthy sentences and the sinuous, extended movements of the camera (superbly crafted by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, a regular Ruiz collaborator).
It is natural to assume that any filmmaker who tackles Proust must be reasonably obsessed with the mental and emotional processes of recollection, and the individual’s experience of passing time. With what is, again, a bravely counterintuitive leap, Ruiz sidestepped most of that brand of subjective agony and ecstasy. As in his Chile-set swansong Night Across the Street (2012), he envisaged Proustian time not as a private sensation, but as a fully external, physical and objective “dimension”: something (he claimed) that only mystics could truly “see”. This is what makes his Time Regained both hallucinatory and concrete, wayward and exact.