1913 marks the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of what would become Marcel Proust’s magisterial novel In Search of Lost Time. Proust, who died in 1922, claimed never to have seen a film and expressed doubts that cinema could capture life in depth. Nevertheless, his great theme – the experience of the passage of time and the changes it rings on the personality and especially on affective relations between people – seems to cry out for cinematic adaptation, despite the profound difficulty of finding visual equivalents for Proust’s lengthy musings on the mysteries of love and of the self. Two proposed versions surely rank among the greatest films never made: attempts by Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey in the 1960s and ‘70s to film the entirety of In Search of Lost Time. Visconti planned to cast Alain Delon as Marcel and Brando as Charlus; Harold Pinter wrote a Proust screenplay for Losey. Three more recent projects have each prudently focused on one of the novel’s seven volumes, although in doing so, they often refer to important moments from throughout the books.
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present these films in conjunction with a Harvard University conference, “Proust and the Arts,” an interdisciplinary conference in celebration of this centennial of the publishing of Swanns’ Way, to take place on April 19 and 20.
Special thanks: Chantal Akerman; François Proulx – Harvard University; Anne Miller, Eric Jausseran – Consulate General of France, Boston; Delphine Selles-Alvarez – French Film Office, New York; Gary Palmucci – Kino Lorber; Brian Belovarac – Janus Films
Directed by Raúl Ruiz. With Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez
France 1999, 35mm, color, 169 min. French with English subtitles
Although the title of Time Regained identifies it as an adaptation of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Raúl Ruiz’s film ambitiously attempts to present something of the sweep of the novel as a whole. Time Regained finds the battlefront of World War I approaching Paris as Proust’s narrator observes his aging friends, their loves, their deceptions and their inscrutabilities. The ominous rumblings from the front announce the dawning of modernity that is already confronting these characters, from young to old, with rapidly changing technologies and sexual mores. The film foregrounds various new instruments of perception, from mirrors and magnifying glasses to magic lanterns and stereoscopic slides to the Theatrophone, a precursor of the radio that fascinated Proust, and cinema itself. These instruments deterritorialize and defamiliarize all sense of space or time; Ruiz foregrounds them in Time Regained as his cinematic version of the argument that modernity’s unsettled, drifting consciousness is a byproduct of the sound and image technologies.
Directed by Chantal Akerman. With Sylvie Testud, Stanislaus Merhar, Olivia Bonamy
France 2000, 35mm, color, 118 min. French with English subtitles
If Ruiz emphasizes the Proustian theme of time, Chantal Akerman focuses on Proust’s reflections on love in this variation on La prisonnière set in the present day. Her updated story of the jealous love of Proust’s narrator for the alternately passive and elusive Albertine plays on the book’s depictions of love as cruel, self-defeating, altruistic, a source of both bliss and despair and, above all, obsessive. In a Parisian apartment of faded elegance, a young man and woman enact rites of seduction, punishment and rejection, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, except for the man’s grandmother and the woman’s friends with whom – to her partner’s chagrin – she devotes much time. In keeping with Proust’s own fascination with gender fluidity and ambiguity, neither male nor female entirely settle into the roles of bearer and object of the gaze. The young man is both subject and object, for the audience and for himself. As for her, who knows? Hence the surveillance of his lover undertaken by the young man, which certainly recalls Vertigo, but Akerman herself has pointed to her celebrated Jeanne Dielman as another of this film’s predecessors: obscure rituals and repressed sexuality in the huis clos of a single apartment.
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. With Jeremy Irons, Ornella Muti,
France/West Germany 1984, 35mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles
While a more conventional example of “the art film” than the other two titles in this series, Swann in Love deserves credit as the first feature to bring any part of In Search of Lost Time to the screen. Its skillful attempts at condensing and visualizing Proust’s prose and at evoking the 1880s Paris of Swann’s Way, from cultured salons and aristocratic parties to elegant brothels, helped pave the way for future adaptations. The film depicts the episode that makes up the bulk of Proust’s first volume: the love affair between the bourgeois aesthete Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette de Crécy. Perhaps the most remarkable, and the most cinematic, achievement of Swann in Love is the way that it deploys the Vinteuil sonata, the fictional piece of chamber music that reveals Swann’s love to himself. As realized by composer Hans Werner Henze, this music channels late Romanticism on its way to turning into musical modernism and permeates the film as expression and extension of the perplexing affair between Swann and Odette.