Film and TV

Past Imperfect

In recent years, the fabulous Chilean expatriate director Raoul (sometimes Raul) Ruiz has moved from shoestring-budgeted features that could qualify as avant-garde to increasingly opulent movies with major art-house stars and a shot at mainstream success. Not yet sixty, he has made more than sixty films since his 1968 debut Three Sad Tigers, compiling one of the strangest filmographies in cinema history.

There are oddball titles like the 1978's Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Jean Reno's screen debut). There was a 1985 production of Treasure Island with Martin Landau, Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Leaud and (as Long John Silver)...Vic Tayback. There was Three Lives and Only One Death, which, featuring as it did one of Marcello Mastroianni's last starring roles, became the first Ruiz film to gain real American distribution. That led to 1997's Genealogies of a Crime, with Catherine Deneuve, and then to the underrated thriller Shattered Image, with Anne Parillaud and Stephen Baldwin, a film whose plot bore a spooky resemblance to the current Passion of Mind.

Now Ruiz is back with a hugely ambitious project -- an adaptation of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (aka In Search of Lost Time), which is considered by many to be the greatest twentieth-century novel -- 3,000 pages, seven books, originally published in fifteen volumes. The credits claim the movie is based only on Time Regained, the last part of this massive autobiographical work, but my Proust consultants, and Ruiz himself, acknowledge that there are elements from the other books -- though with Proust, it can be hard to tell.

The action -- if the word "action" can be invoked anywhere in a review of Time Regained -- begins with Proust on his deathbed. It would be simple to say that the rest of the film is told in flashback, but Ruiz takes an approach that's not nearly so linear. The film intermingles memories of the protagonist's childhood with scenes from his adult life, ranging from roughly 1880 through World War I and on into the early '20s. (The author died in 1922.)

Ruiz has a strong sense of mood and has always played with narrative convention in fascinating ways -- both of which may make him sound like the perfect director for this daunting project. Yet he may actually be too perfect: The final product might have benefited from more tension between adapter and adaptee. Prose fiction, by its nature, can afford to stretch out, to luxuriate, in a way that cinema, both by its nature and that of the human bladder, can't. This is not to suggest that Michael Bay (Armageddon) or Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) would have been more appropriate: He's gay...he's asthmatic...and he's out for revenge! When the law is not enough, call Marcel Proust! But Ruiz's approach, flowing in and out of various settings and decades, introducing numerous characters in a series of barely distinguishable party scenes, may only emphasize the most difficult aspects of his source material.

For the first third or so -- the film runs two hours and forty minutes -- Ruiz's dazzling technique holds our interest. There are mirror shots, multiple exposures, strange framings, levitations and metamorphoses. At one point, a character repeats the same entrance twice within the same shot. (There must be a disturbance in the Matrix!) The director uses every wonderful trick that Alain Resnais employed in Last Year in Marienbad and Providence, and then some. (Marienbad's screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, shows up in a small role, perhaps as acknowledgment of that film's influence.) Every once in a while, Ruiz throws us off balance in a novel way: He'll be moving the camera, but the shift in perspective between foreground and background won't appear quite right. At first it seems as though he's using the track-zoom technique employed by Hitchcock in Vertigo; then you realize that he's literally got furniture and actors standing on dollies that are being moved at speeds that violate our visual expectations.

But even this stylistic razzle-dazzle begins to wear thin. While Ruiz says that viewers need not have read Proust -- and, in fact, that it might be preferable -- he may be fooling himself. Without at least a cursory knowledge of the milieu and the characters, Time Regained can be baffling, made even more so by the constant time shifts. Too many characters introduced too quickly refer to each other too casually. Wait! Which aristocrat is John Malkovich (made up to look weirdly like Walter Huston): Saint-Loup or Charlus? How old is he? Is Deneuve playing Marcel's mother or a contemporary? Is Oriane a Guermantes or a Saint-Loup or both? What is the significance of which family she belongs to? What is the significance of one of the characters losing track of these crucial distinctions? How are we supposed to know? Has the war ended yet?

So many elements of Ruiz's work are so lovely that this utter confusion as to what's happening, and when, and why we should care is a shame. Proust buffs will not be bothered, and alert moviegoers may find enough to hold their interest. But for many -- most of whom, sadly, will be coming to Ruiz for the first time -- the film's demands may be too perplexing.