Of all the influential novels of the twentieth century, the works of Marcel Proust are certainly among the most intractable when it comes to dramatic adaptation. (Of course, those of Joyce and Pynchon, to name but two others, would hardly be a picnic either.) The prolific Chilean writer-director Raoul Ruiz makes a valiant attempt with this sumptuous, often inventive filmization based on the final volume of “Remembrance of Times Past” (though it inevitably contains allusions to earlier tomes in the series), but ultimately the film proves a ponderous, shallow cinematic approximation of the author’s fluid, if frequently murky and allusive, achievement. It’s easy to admire for its ambition, but difficult to appreciate as a motion picture, seeming instead to be the sort of thing thing Pauline Kael once derided as a coffee-table movie, high on gloss and style but low on the old-fashioned kinetic and narrative virtues.
Ruiz has a great eye, and he and production designer Bruno Beauge have done a splendid job in capturing the atmosphere of France in the years between Proust’s adolescence (1880 or so) and death (1922). In collaboration with Gilles Taurand, he’s also been faithful to the constantly-shifting chronological perspective of “The Narrator,” Proust himself. As a story, however, “Time Regained,” while beautiful to look at, will prove almost impenetrable for those not already familiar with the author’s work. We watch Proust serenely interacting with a wide variety of characters over some forty years, but are never properly introduced to either him or them, and many viewers will really need a scorecard to keep everyone straight over the course of the nearly three-hour running-time. What gradually becomes clear is that Catherine Deneuve remains beautiful whatever age she’s supposed to be as Odette, Vincent Perez loses his hair most unbecomingly as the journalist-pianist Morel, and Emmanuelle Beart is radiant but dramatically inert as Gilberte. John Malkovich adds some juice to his scenes as Charlus, overplaying in the broad way that only he seems able to manage successfully, and Pascal Greggory is stuffily vibrant as Saint-Loup. Marcello Mazzarella resembles Proust himself to a high degree, but he’s a stiff, unyielding presence, and it doesn’t help that the ever-observant narrator looks rather like the young Inspector Clouseau (the Sellers version, of course). Indeed, as the picture solemnly drones on, the viewer might find himself longing for some of the hapless detective’s trademark slapstick. No such luck: Ruiz is dead serious about his Proustian ambitions.
In mounting his leisurely paean to a writer he must deeply love, Ruiz achieves some striking effects, most notably in a recital sequence, where he situates members of the audience and furniture on platforms and moves them in juxtaposition to his roving camera to secure a dreamlike, jarringly unexpected quality. (It’s a bit of staging that Fellini occasionally employed, most notably in “Satyricon.”) But what impresses is almost entirely surface technique; “Time Regained” regales the eye but never touches the heart, and rarely provokes the intellect either. It may be a remarkable act of respect or homage to the author, but as an effort to capture on film Proust’s unique vision it ironically proves too literal, failing to go beyond the obvious in the way that Carlos Saura, for example, does much more powerfully in “Goya in Bordeaux” (also presented as a memory-trip through the eyes of a dying protagonist). But Saura, of course, was dealing with a visual artist, not a verbal one, and so the leap to cinema had a sounder grounding than here. For most viewers, unhappily, “Time Regained” will probably seem more like “Time Wasted.”