Film: Proust: time-waster?

Trying to film Marcel Proust's `A la recherche du temps perdu' has tied many a great director in knots. What is it about this masterpiece that resists adaptation?
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In his latest film, Raul Ruiz attempts to condense Proust's 3,000- page A la recherche du temps perdu - 15 volumes written over two decades - into a tidy two-and-a-half hours. The result is as bewildering as it is astonishing. Ruiz flits back and forth in time, introducing us to a vast array of characters. (Even his narrator has trouble distinguishing between them.) The film is ostensibly based on Time Regained, the last volume of the novel, but this is just the starting-point. As screenwriter Gilles Taurand puts it, Time Regained provides "secret tunnels" leading to all sorts of earlier episodes.

Taurand's choice of metaphor is instructive. When filmmakers are discussing Proust, they always seem to talk in terms of corridors, mazes and labyrinths; of deciphering and unravelling. The intention in Time Regained, Taurand claims, is to allow the audience to "enjoy losing themselves", but to entrance them at the same time. In other words: don't worry if you can't follow what is going on.

In theory, anybody can now make a movie of A la recherche du temps perdu. (The rights to the book fell into the public domain more than a decade ago) Most other major 20th- century novels have been cannibalised by the movies. We've had versions of Ulysses, Death in Venice and any number of Henry James adaptations, but for some reason, Proust has scared away filmmakers. His novel is still routinely dismissed as "unfilmable", a strange verdict given how cinematic Proust's language often seems. With its madeleine cakes and chiming bells, the book provides endless opportunities for Rosebud-style flashbacks. It also has plenty to titillate. There is voyeurism, lesbianism, homosexuality (in Ruiz's film, we see the narrator, face pressed against a window, watching impassively as Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich) is given a good spanking by a male prostitute), family plotting, political intrigue and scandal (Proust writes at length about the Dreyfus case), and all the glamour of the Faubourg St-Germain. When it comes to investigating high society and exposing its blatant snobbery, Proust is both satirist and detective. As critic Walter Benjamin put it: "The upper 10,000 were to him a clan of criminals, a band of conspirators beyond compare: the Camorra of consumers." If not a movie, Proust's 3,000- page opus ought at least to provide plenty of grist for a very satisfying mini-series.

Various eminent auteurs have toyed with the idea of bringing at least bits of A la recherche to the screen without quite working out how. Francois Truffaut turned down the chance to direct a version in 1964. Rene Clement tried but failed to get a Proust film off the ground, as did Visconti. Joseph Losey spent several fruitless years attempting to drum up interest in an adaptation of A la recherche. He tapped everybody from Sam Spiegel to Nelson Rockefeller for funds, in vain. David Caute's biography of Losey details some of the scornful responses from agents, actors and financiers toward a project they regarded as Quixotic at best. "This is the age of Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand," one Hollywood powerbroker chided Losey, "there are no roles for them here," a verdict which seems as misguided as it is philistine.

Despite his success in Visconti's Death in Venice, Dirk Bogarde was also sceptical about Losey's endeavour. "I can't see the Yank Orientals on the coast having an idea as to what it is all about... the audiences too... will they know who is who?" he asked the director.

Harold Pinter's screenplay (published by Faber in 1977) stands as a monument to the film that Losey never made. "Working on A la recherche was the best working year of my life," Pinter later claimed. He had steeped himself in Proust, visiting the author's old haunts and taking copious notes while reading the book. "For three months I read A la recherche every day ... but was left at the end quite baffled as to how to approach a task of such magnitude."

Nevertheless, the critics admired his adaptation. "It's a beautiful working model in which Proust's million-and-a-half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots," enthused the New Statesman, but no financiers were found to bring that tidy model to life.

Whether or not Ruiz read Pinter's screenplay is not clear, but there are some striking similarities in the way they approach Proust's text. Both men exploit the fact that A la recherche's end and its beginning echo one another in time and theme; interestingly, Time Regained (the last volume), was written almost simultaneously with Swann's Way (the first volume). Both men make use of this inextricable link. "I wanted to show all the narrator's sensations contained between the two, place the bright magic-lantern of childhood opposite the final shades," Ruiz told one interviewer. "The whole book is, as it were, contained in that (final) volume," observed Pinter. Both flit from book to book, skipping between 1888, when the narrator is a child, and 1921, when he is close to death.

Their approach is altogether more fluid than that of Jean- Claude Carriere, Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, the writers of Volker Schlondorff's Swann in Love (1984), the first Proust "film" (excepting Percy Adlon's 1981 Celeste, based on the reminiscences of Proust's housekeeper) to reach the big screen. Swann in Love is based on only one book of Proust. The writers compress the original material further, squashing the story of Swann's love affair with the beautiful courtesan Odette into 24 hours. As Carriere put it: "Our gamble was that by dipping a bucket into the river we would find the elements that make it flow."

The images of Swann in Love that probably linger in most viewers' memories are those of Jeremy Irons (very uptight as the Parisian dandy, Swann) nibbling at Ornella Muti's breasts in the back of a hansom carriage, looking like a pig in search of truffles. The film is certainly handsomely mounted and elegantly shot, Alain Delon camps it up as Baron de Charlus, Fanny Ardant is all graceful hauteur as the Duchesse de Guermantes. What it lacks, though, is the quicksilver narrative style of the novel. It seems just like any other hide-bound, linear literary adaptation.

Time Regained is more daring. Ruiz, a Chilean-born filmmaker and playwright who moved to France after the fall of the Allende government, has assembled the kind of actors you expect to find in a "prestige" production. Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart and Chiara Mastroianni all feature in prominent roles, but the camera never simply sits back and records their performances. Ruiz uses flashbacks, mirrors, magic-lantern shows and intricately elaborate pans and tracking shots. The visual inventiveness is startling, even if the storytelling is quite baffling. Time Regained may well end up annoying the experts and leaving unprepared audiences groping in the dark, but at least it shatters the lazy old assumption that Proust's monumental novel can't be filmed.

There will be a gala screening of `Time Regained' at the Odeon Kensington on 16 September, and it will be shown at Odeon cinemas nationwide as part of the Martell French Cinema Tour, 24 September-2 December