The screenplay, by Gilles Taurand and Ruiz, focuses on Proustís adulthood and his friendship with a clique of ultra-wealthy nobles whose entire existence seems comprised of sipping champagne. The nobles are played with vigor by Catherine Deneuve, Pascal Gregory, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Perez, Christian Vadim, and a French speaking John Malkovich. Starting on Proustís deathbed, we are introduced to all of his friends through extended flashbacks, but their interlocking relationships donít become clear until the end, if ever. There are many intimate scenes between people whose names we donít know or, in some cases, whom weíve never seen before. Ruiz extends these scenes for long stretches until we canít help but question their purpose. And in many of these scenes, Proust is completely absent. Is he imagining these conversations? Or is the director imagining them for him? The screenplay doesnít seem to know, or care, and casts us adrift somewhere between Proustís memories and the directorís interpretation of them.
As Proust, French actor Andre Engel fails to show signs of life or imagination. He looks the part well enough, complete with droopy eyes and an Hercule Poirot mustache. But he rarely speaks, and he moves his facial muscles even less frequently. Did the filmmakers intentionally make their hero opaque? Perhaps they are more interested in his many friends who are constantly allowed to upstage him. Even the sumptuous set decoration and costumes have more screen time. Proust disappears into the background before we ever learn who he is.
Time Regained is much more successful at exploring how memories interconnect. They messily lead into each other, Ruiz suggests, overlapping each other until people, places and time are no longer distinguishable. He will often interrupt one memory with another memory, the inner memory being invoked by a familiar noise or face. Sometimes, the interrupting memory is itself interrupted, so that we feel like we are tunneling deep into Proustís subconscious. During these sequences, Time Regained finds a new kind of freedom in which storytelling is not bound by logic or chronology. If Ruiz had sustained this level of abstraction for the movieís duration, he would have created a masterful exploration of a mind in perpetual motion.
Ruizís camera is instrumental in telling Proustís story. It doesnít just record the memories; it acts as an interpreter of Proustís hindsight attitudes and emotions. When he is an adolescent, the camera oscillates restlessly between faces, suggesting his uneasiness around his new friends. Or when he is conversing with his girlfriend Albertine, it moves steadily, with confidence and grace. Ruiz and his production designer have even constructed movable sets so that objects that are normally stationary, from tables and chairs to entire throngs of people, glide smoothly across the room. The overall effect is one of exaggerated movement. Proustís mind is in a state of flux in which episodes and people are rearranging and redefining themselves.
When Ruiz stops shuttling between memories, Time Regained loses its tempo. The final 30 minutes takes place at an intimate party in which old friends float in and out of focus. But instead of using the party as a starting point to explore earlier memories, we stay in the same moment, forced to endure an endless parade of old world eccentricity. Claustrophobia soon sets in. Why has Ruiz rescinded our ability to move through time? Varying the frequency of the temporal shifts may have seemed like fun for the filmmakers, but it only compounds the viewerís already heavy workload.
In terms of content, Time Regained strongly echoes Eternity and a Day, the Cannes award-winning epic by Theo Angelopoulos. Both movies delve into the memories of old men at the end of their lives. Both take enormous liberty with time, slowing it down or stopping it all together to elongate a fleeting emotion. But while Eternity and a Day knows who its subject is, Time Regained canít decide. Proustís memories donít look or sound like they come from one person. They have been adulterated by filmmakers whoíve mixed too much of their own voices into their retelling, obscuring the identity of the movieís true author. Ultimately, Time Regained is not about Proust or his circle of friends; itís about the filmmakers themselves whoíve hijacked someone elseís life as a vehicle for their own dubious artistry.