Arts & Events

AROUND AND ABOUT FILM: 'Time Regained' in the Raul Ruiz 'Library Lover' Retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 30, 2012 - 02:22:00 PM

Watching 'Time Regained,' Raul Ruiz's 1999 adaptation of Proust's last book, onscreen at the PFA, over a decade after seeing it projected three times in a two year period, revealed again the density of the film in its engagement with Proust's vision—and with a contemporary audience. 

The collective title of Proust's series of volumes translates as "searching for lost time," and Ruiz—himself the author of well over a hundred films, over a hundred plays and scores of books—seems to have been engaged in a search for the cinematic means to more than represent, but trigger the same experiences Proust found "involuntarily," freeing deep-seated memories and the recognition that doing so can create a poetic awareness and freedom in any individual's coming to grips with their own existence and the consciousness required to do so. 

This's particularly apropos to Ruiz's declarations, in other contexts, of his work being "not fiction ... but about fiction" and that every shot in a film is, in a way, a separate film and the link to other films, both existent and potential. (The second assertion has political implications, as does much in Ruiz's work: he positioned his films in opposition to—and in dialogue with—the Hollywood narrative film and others of its type, which rely on what John Howard Lawson, the blacklisted screenwriter, characterized as "Central Conflict Theory," the plotting of a story "providentially," with a development (conflict) and ending that, in retrospect, seem preordained. 

A few years before 'Time Regained' was scheduled for production, Ruiz talked about his adaptation. Instead of making a film of 'Swann's Way' (as did Volker Schlondorff with 'Swann in Love') or one or more of the other opening books of Proust's series, Ruiz had hit on starting with the end and flashing back to the earlier parts of Marcel's story: "Narrative films are about flashing back, not forward!" 

(He also "included" what other filmmakers had made—or intended to make—of Proust; the sequence near the end of the older Marcel wandering with his childhood self in a chthonic maze of sculted stone, with canals and gondolas, recalls Visconti's 'Death in Venice' ... Visconti had written script based on Proust, but never realized his project.) 

There are many "games," as Ruiz would refer to them—in the sense of Nicholas of Cusa, the early Renaissance thinker who made up games and puzzles to assist mortal minds and perception to grasp the sense of the infinite and eternal—that occur and recur during the film. John Malkovich is dubbed with a feline, aristocratic accent in his role as the elegant and very louche eccentric, Baron Charlus ... but in his final scene, he appears before Marcel after the Armistice, outdoors (Charlus, the creature of the night), obviously recovering from illness, speaking in his (Malkovich's) own voice, so his French sounds halting, childish even, relishing his survival as he names family and friends—each name puntuated by "Mort!" 

Like a counterpoint to Malkovich's dubbed, then natural voice, in regard to accent, Arielle Dombasle, very much a French actress, is cast as the social-climbing bride of Bloch, who has changed his name, hoping to doff his Jewishness ... (Proust, the old Dreyfusard, sharpens his satire on this accomodation to the nouveau riche world after the War, which seeks money and accomodation.) Almost exquisite—or counter-exquisite—to hear Dombasle's impression of a "cultured" American, stumbling over French pronunciation and apologizing in her native tongue, then declaring she's American! ... when her finishing school intonation's mistaken for Public School English ... at an elegant matinee packed with snobs and moribund aristocrats. 

Ruiz, who was Salvador Allende's film advisor, forced to leave Chile for exile in France at Pinochet's coup, holds this class situation in low-key tension, in the background and at the edges of the frame, in offhanded remarks by the characters, as the situation shifts with the social impact of the War. The crucial role of servants and facilitators of all kinds for the upper classes is constantly shown; the sexual habits of the aristocrats often involve their self-consciousness—or desire to escape it—as "the chosen ones." During shooting, Ruiz kept a set of Edward Curtis' photographs of Native American Indians in their regalia (some of whom hadn't worn it for years) with him. "Another dying tribe, aware of their coming extinction," he said, reflecting on Proust's aristocratic dinosaurs, the allegory of a world vanishing, along with survivors it harbored from earlier epochs. 

"Allegory," an important word for Ruiz, the aficionado of Walter Benjamin's writings about art, storytelling, melancholy, politics—as well as Baroque traditions of his native Chile. 

I remember Mick LaSalle's acerbic response to 'Time Regained' in the Chronicle on its commercial release, a year after it was screened (and critically acclaimed, in the Chron and elsewhere) at the San Francisco Film Festival. The chair for the Pink Section's "Little Man" stood empty. LaSalle wrote that he was less offended by the movie being a procession of "impossible to follow" shots and scenes that play with chronology than by his "realization" that it's what the filmmaker intended!—though he does, half-heartedly, come up with some leading phrases: "dream logic," "fever dream" ... It's all in Proust's head, LaSalle realizes, but it must've been on his worst day! (No telling what kind of day it was for LaSalle ... ) 

To make a plotted narrative out of Proust's grand experiment would've betrayed the purpose of the original. But how to compress, however radically, the experience of reading many hundreds of pages, the set-up for the many, many realizations by both narrator and reader in a film of a couple hours? 

Ruiz's answer was to dig deep in the trove of innovations he'd come up with in his almost countless super low-budget films from the previous 30 years, showing his remarkable cast (Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory, among many others) posed in full antediluvian regalia, often quibbling over some nicety, or a not-so-nice rumor ... Tableaus, sometimes Tableaux Vivants, as when Marcel recalls stumbling on a paving stone in Venice—one of John Ruskin's stones, a favorite of Proust—and stands awkwardly posed, frozen in mid-fall, as present and past swirl around him. Allegories of consciousness in its ebb and flow, its darkness and bursts of light—as in the light that blanks the screen when Proust's servant Celeste opens the curtain in the almost hermetically sealed room in which he dictates his book on his deathbed ... 

Some images stand out by themselves, like the figure of the great Edith Scob as the Princess de Guermantes, standing dazed yet regal, surrounded by monuments in a churchyard as mourners swarm past her at the burial of her son, killed in the War. 

(Later, this tall, elegant figure buttonholes Marcel at a postwar function to fill his ear with venom about the more guiltless characters.) 

Truly a great film, capable of many viewings, many moods. Ruiz's collaborators—including cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, who shot 'Providence' (a pun Ruiz would've enjoyed, maybe thought of) for Alain Resnais (about an old writer, played by John Gielgud, near his end, remembering—and tinkering authorially with—his life on a sleepless, drunken spree in his lonely mansion), one of the filmmakers Ruiz references, for 'Last Year At Marienbad' (Alain Robbe-Grillet, the novelist who wrote the 'Marienbad' screenplay, has a cameo as diarist Goncourt in one flashback); brilliant Chilean composer Jorge Arriagada (who scored more than 50 films for his fellow countryman), editor Denise de Casabianca (best-known here for 'Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge' from Ambrose Bierce, 'The Mother & the Whore' and 'the Return of Martin Guerre'), and many more—often worked with him on multiple films; some (like actor Jean Badin) were both collaborators and personal friends-and Melville Poupaud, who plays the Prince of Foix, started out as a juvenile in Ruiz's films of the early 80s. 

Following 'Time Regained' on the PFA bill for the Ruiz retrospective was 'Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting' (1979), his most famous film before 'Time Regained,' a free (and wild, but deliciously controlled) adaptation of Pierre Klossowski's novel 'The Baphomet,' featuring literal Tableaux Vivants of scenes from a series of paintings of the 19th century, displayed by an art critic to the filmmaker (who we hear but don't see) as he tries to demonstrate more and more elaborate conspiracy theories just under the surface, or in a stray gesture or glance of the reenacted peintings—all of which lead back to "the hypothesis of the stolen painting," a kind of spoof in advance of 'The Da Vinci Code,' possibly filmed in the same chateau ... Exquisite, enigmatically ironic ... along with the short, "Dog's Dialogue" (1977), a stream of mostly stills with montage of sound and narration, a kind of surreal puzzle of a soap opera-style photo-novela, a puzzle in which all the pieces keep getting swapped around—and all fit together. 

Next is 'The Penal Colony,' from Kafka, relocated to South America, an unnamed country whose only product is torture for view by foreign media—along with Ruiz's segment of Peter Greenaway-produced BBC program, 'A TV Dante,' Inferno cantos 9-14 (so including the great Farinata canto), set during the coup in Chile (another September 11—"our little September 11," as some Chilenos ironically refer to it), with Danteand Virgil's voices by Bob Peck and John Gielgud (April 4 at 7), as well as his first film, 'Tres Tristes Tigres' (1968) on April 14—then 'Suspended Vocation' (1977), also from a Klossowski novel, one of his most outrageously funny movies, loaded with ambiguous gestures, as a filmmaker's hired by the Church to make sense of two films shot by two opposing ecclessiastic factions in different filmic style of the same story, over a decade of social change, finally edited into one unwieldy, incomplete shaggy dog story with an oblique, curiously flexible meaning ... Both Klossowski films shot by Sasha Vierny of 'Marienbad' fame. (April 15). Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way (just east of Telegraph, up flight of stairs on UC campus). $5.50-$9.50. 642-1412;