It's About Time

The remains of the day: Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mazzarella in <I>Time Regained</I>

The remains of the day: Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mazzarella in Time Regained

In 1993, New York Film Festival programmer Richard Peña lamented that Chilean-French director Raul Ruiz had fallen out of fashion in America without ever having come into fashion. Seven years later the situation looks much different. Every film Ruiz has made since 1995 has been released in the United States, although Time Regained, which played for three months in New York earlier this year, is the only one that has come close to being a hit. Upon emigrating to France in 1973, Ruiz began cranking out two or three low-budget, visually dazzling, aggressively flaky films a year. (When hired by a Canadian rock band to direct a video, he wound up making a feature-length musical with the money they offered.) Fifteen years ago, one would never have imagined him directing a big-budget, star-studded adaptation of the final volume of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. However, time has changed Ruiz, especially after he reached his oft-stated goal of completing a whopping 100 films.

As the Nineties wore on, Ruiz began smuggling his preoccupations with the mutable nature of identity and storytelling into a variety of genres. In the fantasy Dark at Noon and his underrated Hollywood debut, the self-parodic thriller (and La Femme Nikita takeoff!) Shattered Image, it worked like a charm. Lately, however, genre seems to be getting the better of him. His latest film, The Comedy of Innocence (due for release next year), a family drama with paranormal overtones that greatly resembles the first half of The Sixth Sense, is hardly the worst Ruiz film I've seen, but it's by far the blandest. Although Time Regained is less of a bore, its inability to delve far beyond a glossy surface is equally problematic. (Ruiz isn't the first or last director to take on the heavy mantle of adapting Proust: Volker Schlöndorff got there before him with Swann's Way, and Chantal Akerman's feminist revision of The Prisoner, The Captive, screened at Cannes last spring to a mixed reception.)

Time Regained's press kit doesn't even attempt a conventional synopsis, instead observing that "Proust's own life makes sense only in the context of his writing, which is his ultimate reality, so it is his work which streams before his eyes as he passes away. His creations populate his memories." As this reticence suggests, Time Regained is the kind of film that demands to be seen twice or not at all. On my own first viewing, the movie often seemed borderline incoherent (especially since I haven't read Proust in the better part of a decade), but it became far more approachable the second time around.

Although the cast is packed with such stars as Emmanuelle Béart, Catherine Deneuve, and a dubbed, wigged John Malkovich, Ruiz has chosen an unknown actor, Marcello Mazzarella, to incarnate Proust's alter ego. For its first third, the film takes us on a leisurely tour of upper-class France at the beginning of World War I. Over the course of endless dinner parties, the war's menace finally becomes apparent. While Baron de Charlus (Malkovich) perceives it as an opportunity to cruise for soldiers, the war winds up wreaking havoc on his dandyish circle. Charlus's nephew Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory) is killed in battle, and his would-be protégé Morel (Vincent Perez), a talented musician, is arrested for desertion. Still, Marcel remains passive and voyeuristic to an extent that would make even Andy Warhol blanch. (Proust's own homosexuality is mainly passed onto Charlus, although Marcel does peep at his S-M sessions.) Once the war ends, Marcel returns to writing, conscious that his health is beginning to fail.

Although Ruiz's Eighties films reveled in bizarre camera angles (including one point-of-view shot from the inside of a cat's mouth), Time Regained contains few such oddball images. Here Ruiz's direction is mainly marked by the camera's swooning around the opulent sets, and by a constant manipulation of foreground/background scale. (The lush production design reflects the benefits of a relatively large budget.) Although periodically interrupted by temporal overlaps and flashbacks within flashbacks, the film--especially the middle third--is surprisingly linear. An anti-realist par excellence, Ruiz injects a touch of the baroque into perfectly ordinary scenes by finding visual correlatives to Marcel's subjectivity. Thus light fades as Marcel grows bored during a dinner party, and a woman's face appears to change shape as he looks at her.

However, these gestures hardly equal the poetic complexity of Remembrance of Things Past. In the end, Time Regained plays its material too straight to feel genuinely Proustian--or Ruizian. Films as otherwise dissimilar as Marguerite Duras's India Song and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America have achieved the author's mood of haunted reverie more successfully, while Ruiz's film feels much like an artier episode of Masterpiece Theater. If one expects little more than a well-crafted period piece, Time Regained remains fairly enjoyable. But, alongside The Comedy of Innocence, it suggests that Ruiz's subversive impulses are becoming a thing of the past.