Time Regained

(Le Temps retrouvé, Raúl Ruiz, France/Italy/Portugal, 1999)


Lost and Found


Raúl Ruiz frequently remarked that he was the perfect person to adapt Marcel Proust’s vast suite of novels Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) to the screen because, having reached the end of reading the entire work, he instantly forgot it all. He was joking, of course, but his jest disguised a serious method. The only way to convey Proust on screen, in Ruiz’s opinion, was to approach it not as a literal condensation of multiple characters and events, but as a psychic swirl of half-remembered, half-forgotten fragments and impressions – full of uncanny superimpositions and metamorphoses. “The best way to adapt something for film”, he summed up, “is to dream it”.


Ruiz’s dreaming was always accompanied by extensive, meandering, seemingly eccentric research (as his published diaries show beyond doubt). In the case of Time Regained, he plunged (as he revealed in a splendid, lengthy interview with Jacinto Lageira and Gilles Tiberghien) into the diverse philosophical theories of time offered by Immanuel Kant and Henri Bergson; into the scientific and mathematical writings of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel; and into the accounts of visions recorded by religious mystics – since, as Ruiz reasoned: “We are dealing with what is, above all, a mystical text”. (1)


He even dipped into the annals of early film theory, discovering the 1946 essay by Jacques Bourgeois in La Revue du cinéma titled “Le cinéma à la recherche du temps perdu”. Bourgeois’ piece confirmed for Ruiz two of his deepest, longstanding intuitions about the medium of film: that all images, even if they are signalled as flashbacks to the narrative’s past, “happen” for the spectator in an eternal present; and that, in a movie, there is a split between its tableau aspect (the period setting, the costumes, places, and so on), and its narrative aspect (everything that happens and moves forward in the plot). With the caveat that, in Ruiz’s mind, it was always preferable to treat the narrative as a fixed tableau, and give the setting its own strange, teeming life.


It is in this mélange of wildly diverse knowledge-systems, hunches and values that Ruiz, in collaboration with screenwriter Gilles Taurand (who has also worked for André Téchiné, Christophe Honoré and Benoît Jacquot) fashioned a very coherent and consistent way of adapting Proust for the screen. Concentrating on the “digest” offered in the final volume, Time Regained, and using that as a launch-pad from which to conjure the entire Proustian panorama, Ruiz dreamed up his vision of a film where “setting aside World War One, which produced this tableau effect in the novel … nothing really important happens”:


Everything goes back to the point of departure, because we constantly return to childhood, to a detail or experience that possesses the signs of a repetition – those cyclical elements which form, ultimately, the substance of the tableau. So that’s how I filmed Proustian narration: as a tableau. All these narrations [in Proust], brief and fleeting, of no importance, end up creating an image without movement. Rather, it is in the Proustian descriptions – particular elements of environment, costume, character – that we can find, if I can put it this way, the action. Shifts, movements, incidents, sidelong details – all of these are in the tableau; while everything that is static, even ecstatic, is in the narrative. (2)


The narrative is a tableau: Ruiz’s close reading of Proust, in preparation for his cinematographic adaptation of it, merely reinforced his own, characteristic approach since the 1970s. Narrative here is not a linear movement forward, but rather a cluster of figures, objects and incidents caught in the ghostly cycles of eternal return (an update of the Nietzschean idea he picked up from Pierre Klossowski) – a phantasmic logic in which these figures and objects, the utterances they make or the light they give off, can swiftly circulate and redistribute themselves, changing their positions. (3) Everything goes backwards, forwards and then backwards again, over and over, and very often to childhood – but never to designate a hyper-meaningful origin, Rosebud-style. According to Cyril Béghin, in the special issue of Rouge magazine devoted to Ruiz on the occasion of a major International Rotterdam Film Festival retrospective in 2004:


His narratives designate not an origin (there is neither past nor future) but a nucleus. […] The narrative division in Ruiz’s work never proceeds without a moment or point where everything gathers to form a horizon of meaning – or the eye of a storm: unison, synchronicity, simultaneity are properly Ruizian obsessions. (4)


Ruiz’s own remarks open up a fertile way to see, or re-see, his film of Time Regained. Scenes from the novel are indeed rendered, very often, as painterly tableaux, with figures that are stiffly posed, frozen, statuesque, mere reflections, shadows or pale ciphers – ghostly apparitions, walking palimpsests of multiple condensations. And history – the historical narrative of the War – arrives via the incursion of every kind of pictorial, visual medium of representation that the film plunders: photo, optical toy and cinema. The flickering of these audiovisual machines, the hallucinations they prompt, the reveries of alternating light and dark, of frames in motion, are the only real forward-motion of the plot, such as it is.


As Béghin notes: “It is photography or cinema which, each time, clinches the resonance between interior events and world events”. Examples of this process include the young Marcel, goaded into looking into a seemingly static, innocuous optical toy, which shocks him with the animated image of a dying horse; adult Marcel, who looks out the picture-frame of his train window in motion to see himself as a child flecked with snow, as in a cinematic image; and the scene in which both Marcels (the child incarnation working a movie projector) float serenely in front of newsreel footage of the War (a filmic literalisation of something evoked in the novel).


Ruiz’s Time Regained – in order to guarantee both the circularity of time, and the uncanny effect of multiple events happening and overlaying themselves all at once – gives us not one but (as indicated in the above examples) four incarnations of Proust as a character. He figures as a child (Georges du Fresne), an adult (Marcello Mazzarella), and as a bedridden, dying old man (André Engel); and also as a voice-over, read by filmmaker and theatre director Patrice Chéreau. When two or more of these Proust-versions inhabit the same scene (as in the sublime finale), the film achieves its most lyrical, Ophülsian flourishes of style (Jean-Loup Bourget in Positif compared it to La Ronde [1950]). (5) Enjoying the evident correspondence between Proust’s decadent aristocrats and the media “celebrities” of our time, Ruiz took full advantage of what was, for him, a star-studded cast: Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Édith Scob.


It is rare indeed for films that offer a “critical reading” (of any kind) of their esteemed literary source material to be widely successful with a general audience – especially when that reading is as intricate and intertwined as the one Ruiz assembled here. As we all know, at the end of the day, the old-fashioned criterion of “fidelity to the novel” – to either its literal events, or its amorphous “spirit” – still reigns supreme in the reactions of most moviegoers to adaptations of the Great Books. But Ruiz’s Time Regained was a surprising success, effectively launching a new (and more handsomely resourced) chapter in the director’s career. Producer Paulo Branco took an inspired risk in putting Ruiz (rather than a more recognisably “French” filmmaker) at the helm of this project, and granting him (as he did also with Manoel de Oliveira and Chantal Akerman) complete artistic freedom.


What is most impressive is that even many fans and connoisseurs of the novel went away satisfied with Ruiz’s take on what had long been considered – in the light of the unmade adaptations by Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey, and the weak Volker Schlöndorff effort, Swann in Love (1984) – an unfilmable literary property. The beloved characters, the famous motifs (such as the memory-triggering madeleine), the tersely melodramatic situations – Ruiz respected enough of that à lettre in order to win the right to his surreal arabesques and dreamlike variations on the given material. Specialists in both Proust and cinema even found pleasing correspondences between the structure of the novelist’s lengthy sentences and the sinuous, extended movements of the camera (superbly crafted by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, a regular Ruiz collaborator) within labyrinthine décors (inventively decorated by Bruno Beaugé).


Time Regained offers a remarkably concise instance of an ever-expanding ensemble of shot connections and disconnections – of the kind that Ruiz himself theorised in his major text “The Six Functions of the Shot”. (6) Let us look at an example: eight shots from the first sequence. During what is surely among the finest opening lines in all cinema – “Then, one day, everything changed” – we watch an optically distorted shot of written pages, ending in the glimpse of the hand that is inscribing them. The dying Proust is dictating to his assistant, Céleste (Mathilde Seigner, sister of Emmanuelle). But this much is not yet clear in the first shot, which seems to run on, in metaphoric terms, from the previous, shifting opening-credits-image of running water. Shot 2 “places” the voice of the speaker, lying in his sick bed, but completely jolts us away from the previous shot: in this very baroque image, Céleste’s head, seen for the first time, is jammed down into the bottom right-hand corner of the frame – the suture-effect is weak, not strong. Indeed, in each shot transition here (and all throughout the film) the raccord is always tentative (the spectator often needs to hunt out the tiny element of pictorial overlap), even in the case of shot/reverse-shot configuration. How can this be so?


What Ruiz named the centripetal drive in cinema is ceaselessly pursued through multiple means: each shot folds into itself, seeks its own energy-centre, and breaks its usual stable connections (i.e., the centrifugal drive) with the shot to come – through elaborate camera movements (sometimes involving mirror reflections, as in shot 7); certain adjustments in the sound (whether there is music or not, or Marcel abruptly passing from dictation to speech as at the start of shot 3); and, especially, the tendency for all furniture in the décor to cease being literal fixtures and, instead, become animated, moving across, up or down – creating many momentary distortions of visual perspective (shots 2 to 4). In terms of even the simplest plot information, Ruiz often plays a game of hide-and-seek: in the lengthy shot 7, Céleste carries out Marcel’s command to get him something from a drawer, but we do not see what it is until the following shot 8, which stands as its own autonomous scene: a procession of photos seen through a magnifying glass.


What is at stake in this meta-pictorial view of a person’s pictures from the past? It’s natural to assume that any filmmaker who tackles Proust must be reasonably obsessed with the mental and emotional processes of recollection and the individual’s experience of passing time. With what is, again, a bravely counterintuitive leap, Ruiz sidestepped most of that brand of subjective agony and ecstasy. In Ruiz’s re-vision of Proust, time is not memory, or duration, or metaphysical transcendence. As in his late work Night Across the Street (2012), he envisaged Proustian time not as a private sensation, but as a fully external, physical (even hyper-physical) and objective dimension – something (he claimed, referring to Anne Fremantle’s The Protestant Mystics [1964] as prefaced by W.H. Auden) that only mystics could truly “see”. This is what makes his Time Regained both hallucinatory and concrete, wayward and exact.


Raúl Ruiz’s films skip in and out of various dimensions, finding the triggers, frames and figural poses to allow this movement, this bridge between worlds, to occur  – just as Marcel, in one of Time Regained’s greatest sequences, first jumps forward in editing-time (feet striding like Maya Deren’s in At Land [1944]), then trips when his shoe catches on the pavement, freezing in this pose. Time is thus freed to do its dimensional whirl, one more time: after Marcel’s younger self passes by and glances quizzically at him, adult Marcel begins to glide, on an unseen roller, through various spaces and moments.


MORE Ruiz: Dark at Noon, Shattered Image, Three Lives and Only One Death, That Day, Three Crowns of the Sailor, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror




1. See Raúl Ruiz: Entretiens (Paris: Éditions Hoëbeke, 1999). back

2. Ibid., pp. 78-79. back

3. See the special Klossowski issue (“Phantasm and Simulacra”) of Art & Text, no. 18 (July 1985). back

4. Cyril Béghin, Time Regained, Rouge , no. 2 (January 2004). back

5. Jean-Loup Bourget, “Le Temps retrouvé, nouvelle esquisse du caractère étrange de Morel”, Positif, no. 461/462 (July 1999). back

6. Raúl Ruiz (trans. Carlos Morreo), “The Six Functions of the Shot”, Screening the Past, no. 35 (December 2012). back

© Adrian Martin January 2010 / June 2014 / February 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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