Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Time Regained

I saw Raoul Ruiz's film adaptation of the Novel some time back but didn't find time to write about it. Also, most of the film went way above my head. Okay, I have read only the first two volumes of Proust and my understanding of Proust's technique and his philosophical ideas are vague, to say the least. To me, the film's incomprehensibility was a heart-warming reminder that in this age of dumbing down of everything there are people like Raoul Ruiz who would take up projects like this. I was wondering who and where will the audiences of the film be. I mean, movies don't come more high-brow than this. First, Ruiz chooses Proust to adapt and then selects the last volume and starts the film without giving any character or plot background and on top of all that he uses all kinds of visual tricks and obscure surrealistic symbols to approximate Proust's stylistics. I was overwhelmed within half an hour into the film. I knew I had to, not just read the whole book, but also understand the themes in a more detailed manner and then do the same with the film version.

As exercises in literary adaptations go, this must be something unique. I don't think there are more oblique adaptations of a literary work. Now, I have not read the entire novel but I am broadly familiar with all the characters and the main events in the narrative. In spite of this, I couldn't find a single scene which was "directly" lifted from the book. There were few scenes specially the party scenes from the salon of Mme. Verdurin but even there the situations and dialogues were not from the book at all (but then I don't remember everything very well and I haven't read the entire thing anyway). Ruiz, instead of attempting a literal adaptation, approaches the book from a thematic perspective. He tries to capture its essence and then translates the same to screen using the language of cinema. For example, early in the novel, the narrator reflects that, it is only by the forces of habit, which dulls our senses of perception and makes us inattentive, that we come to think of space as absolute and objects as inanimate. Perhaps we get closer to truth when we wake up in the middle of the night and find that the furniture has moved on its own. In the novel it is just presented as a thought, but in the film Ruiz actually shows objects moving in the foreground as well as in the background even as the camera itself pans across the scene. And then there is a scene of the church steeple (whose descriptions in the Novel are one of the most lyrical and evocative) in which trees appear to move until they give way to the spectacle of the steeple.

There were scenes like this which made some sense to me but what about the scene in which hats are lined across the floor and the narrator as the child is with the adult Saint-Loup who is looking at the horrors of the war from a telescope! Or, the scene where Marcel runs and then stops midway and it appears as if he is floating in the air. Or, the final scene in which the adult narrator sees his boyhood self playing on the beach and then the film ends with a grand operatic surge of a musical score. These scenes are not there in the book at all and they will make sense only after a good understanding of the Novel's themes and ideas. The fact that Ruiz thought there were enough audiences who could understand this speaks volumes about his optimism. The film was actually a critical success when it was released. It was shown in competition at the Cannes film festival, where it didn't win any awards. But if we believe this report from The Economist, it "outshone all these[films], and utterly eclipsed the jury's whims".

Perhaps the film owes its success to its fabulous star cast. Catherine Deneuve as Odette is a little too old but then we never get to see her young. Emanuelle Beart is sublimely beautiful and looking at her, I could understand the justification behind hundreds of pages of agonising that the narrator undergoes because of her! Although in the final novel the two (Marcel and Gilberte) come together but the film doesn't exploit the situation to full potential. Chiara Mastroianni (by the way, is she related to Marcello Mastrioanni?) as Albertine has, rather curiously, a small role as compared to that in the book (two full volumes!). And some French actress who played Mme. Verdurin was fabulous too. The male leads were equally good specially John Malkovich at his eccentric best in the role tailor made for him (that of Baron the Charlus) and of course Proust himself, played by Marcello Mazzarella who looks uncannily like the real Proust and who has a curious tilt to his head and walks and talks in his own peculiar way. All in all a perfect ensemble cast.

As Anthony Lane points out in this short write-up,"if you come out of the movie suffering from a mixture of nausea and nostalgia, then Ruiz can pride himself on a job well done." Well, I finished the film with a heavy head and it definitely was spinning after two and half hours of Time Regained. I will notrecommendd the film to Proust neophytes but curious, patient and diligent people might take something out of the film. The ordinary mortals can take a look at the trailer instead and can feel happy about it. Here.

And finally, many heartfelt thanks to Anurag for getting me the DVD. Check out his excellent blog here.

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