Time Regained, the tastefully brash, subtly eccentric, and altogether triumphant Raúl Ruiz adaptation of the labyrinthian volume that brings Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to its magnificent conclusion, is a golden reverie on a passing age—namely ours.
Writing in the light of the Lumière brothers’ cinematographe, Proust sought to have his readers visualize temporality; filming at the dawn of the digital era, Ruiz allows the flow of static images through the movie projector to merge with the stream of time, while pondering the paradox of memories fixed in emulsion. Time Regained‘s characters are introduced as the dying Proust shuffles through his collection of photos. “Then one day,” he muses, “everything changes.”
The movie searches for that day. A humorously shocking scene in a male bordello notwithstanding, Time Regained—which had its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival—is primarily a series of spectacular social gatherings through which men stroll beneath outsize hats and women glide in feathered finery. The action is set mainly during the always off-camera First World War, and everyone is living le mode rétro. The funerals are oddly festive; the other receptions have a comic haunted-house feel. At one, the guests obligingly turn to stone to serve as screens for the shadow play of the child Marcel’s magic lantern. Elsewhere, figures are frozen and illuminated by the camera while Ruiz integrates vintage films throughout—reveling in the presence of this new entertainment machine.
Proust is a writer whose work defeated such would-be adapters as Joseph Losey, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Luchino Visconti. Volker Schlöndorff eliminated Marcel’s subjective consciousness in his tepid adaptation of Swann’s Way; Ruiz makes this observer his central character. The bedridden writer is visited by ghosts in his dreams and watched by his childhood self in his memories. A pursed and pomaded near-double for Proust, Italian actor Marcello Mazzarella makes a dapper little outsider in an ostentatiously glittering ensemble. Even the star turns—which include such once and future divas as Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Marie-France Pisier, and Edith Scob—are fully inhabited performances. As the perverse Baron Charlus, John Malkovich is the personification of wit, and particularly after his character suffers a stroke, the actor’s French only improves his mannerist delivery.
Given the audacity of adapting the last novel in a multivolume series, Time Regained presents a few difficulties for those unfamiliar with Proust’s novel—although it also serves as a superb trailer. (When the movie opened in the U.K. early this year, it elevated Proust to best-sellerdom.) As David Cronenberg did with Naked Lunch, Ruiz has made a film about the novel—it is a meditation on, rather than a copy of, the original. Ruiz imagines Proust as though Proust were imagining a movie. (Thanks to the model Ruiz provides, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s time-twisting masterpiece, The Puppetmaster, becomes retrospectively “Proustian.”)
Although Time Regained is not as aggressively cheap or provocatively lurid as standard Ruiz, the Chilean-born filmmaker has not abandoned his “underdeveloped” disrespect for European culture. At times, Time Regained suggests an irreverently lively, historical, and colorized version of Last Year at Marienbad. Playfully jumbling time and space, freezing the moment and choreographing long, fluid takes, doubling back to jump ahead, it’s full of surprises. The most amazing thing is that this may be the most relaxed movie Ruiz has ever made. Would that it were the most commercially successful. The daring of the conception is matched only by the brilliance of the execution. (All hail Kino in releasing what is so far the most exhilarating movie-movie of the year.)
With misplaced nostalgia, contemporary filmmakers continue to revisit those literary classics written before there were movies. Ruiz is more creatively anachronistic. This is a 20th-century movie about a 20th-century novel. The filmmaker attempts to approximate not Proust’s prose but rather the writer’s modernist, multiple-perspective simultaneity. People are simultaneously old and young. Marcel wanders through the crypt after his child self. As the camera moves, statues parade through a shifting foreground. Time Regained is a testament to Marcel’s understanding that “the true paradises are those we lost”—which is to say that the pleasure it provides is the involuntary memory of cinema itself.
Where Time Regained feels effortless and supple, the scarcely less ambitious Humanité makes a more muscle-bound bid for greatness. Bruno Dumont’s outrageously deadpan police procedural—a scandal at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where it won second prize toRosetta—flirts boldly with the ridiculous in bringing a Bressonian gravitas to life on the coastal plain of northeastern France.
Site of battlefields and massacres, this is a landscape to drive the peasants mad. Set in what could be the same bland red-brick town as Dumont’s 1998 Life of Jesus—a place as tense and empty as an audition stage—Humanité exudes a similar sense of belligerent time-wasting. But where Life of Jesus was strong, classical filmmaking, a subtly stylized form of low-key naturalism, Humanité is more visually grandiose. For most of its two and a half hours, the film walks the line between the abstract and the concrete, opening with the tiny figure of the protagonist—an ununiformed policeman named Pharaon—running across the wide-screen windswept ridge. The images are bracingly crisp and sometimes, as when Dumont cuts first to Pharaon slipping in the mud and then to the violated corpse of a prepubescent girl, unforgettable.
Pausing periodically so that the frustrated Pharaon can observe the long, graphic sex scenes between his young friends Domino and Joseph, Humanité is confidently absurd. Pharaon rides a bicycle into the countryside, arrives home, chomps down on an apple, and, in more or less real time, begins retching into the sink. Is he simpleminded or merely sensitive? The detective’s method for interrogating a suspect is to grasp him by the shoulders and sniff like a dog—which may be the way Dumont finds the extraordinary nonactors who populate his films.
Dumont’s performers seem to have crawled from the margins of a Bosch painting, and thanks largely to them, Humanité is a movie of intense physicality. (It’s the meta that’s the matter.) Severine Caneele, who shared the best-actress prize last year at Cannes for her uninhibited portrayal of Domino, is a big-shouldered girl with a jaw to match and eyes set deep in a Cro-Magnon brow. No less a human potato spud, Cannes best actor Emmanuel Schotte’s Pharaon looks perpetually dumbfounded—as well he might be. Humanité suggests that the cop is, above all, searching for himself.
The inert thereness of Schotte’s being and Caneele’s body holds the screen, but the illumination of inner life is a flickering candle at best. As the filmmaker told the audience at the Toronto Film Festival, “All characters partake of the allegory.” His own role is something like a cosmic caption writer. Unlike Bresson, Dumont burdens his creatures with announced significance and leaves them on camera to take the rap.
One of the glories of the old French cinema, Jean Vigo’s 1934 L’Atalante, opens Friday, in a new 35mm print, for a week’s run at Film Forum. Vigo’s lone commercial movie, L’Atalante benefits from an extraordinary alchemy. The filmmaker, a temperamental anarchist, surrealist fellow traveler, and one-man nouvelle vague, loathed the mediocre script he’d been given—a moralizing tale in which a village girl marries a self-satisfied barge captain and is taught by him and his pompous old mate to appreciate the monotony of her new life and scorn the decadent pleasures of the shore. Vigo followed the original screenplay while undermining its smug implications. As filmed, the narrative dissolved into limpid anecdotes. Quasi-documentary bits of business were scattered throughout, and, thanks to the performances, the characters appear far more complicated than written, particularly the unpredictably irrational mate sensationally embodied by Michel Simon.
Vigo’s untimely death (at 29, a few days after a mutilated cut of L’Atalante completed its initial mayfly run) ensured that his particular vision would never grow old. L’Atalante is the world in springtime—a place where shimmering reflections, smoky breezes, empty streets, and a free-floating sense of erotic energy are the essence of life and of movies.