One of Proust’s beauties.

In 1999, Chilean director Raúl Ruiz made the best movie based on a work by Marcel Proust. But I'm already misleading the reader. Though the film is called Time Regained, which is, for sure, the title of the last book of Proust's sprawling (4,215 pages) series of novels called, collectively, Remembrance of Things Past, the film is not really about Time Regained, but the whole novel, and also the last days of its author's life.

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Ruiz's decision to move between the real and the fictional Marcel—the novel's narrator shares the same name as its author—and between the first and the last books, is precisely what makes his film Proustian.

Besides, to follow the book to the letter would be a great mistake, because nothing really happens in it. One does not read Time Regained, or the other six books in the novel, to reach the end. The work's narrative force is terribly weak. It's like being on a moon with low gravity. Things rise and fall very slowly.

If you read a novel by, say, Tom Clancy, the plot holds everything down, and as a consequence you can feel the movement of every chapter and the approach of the final page. This is not a bad thing. But it is not how you can or should read Proust. Nor is it how you should watch a Proustian film.

In Time Regained, which is playing at Northwest Film Forum, an Italian actor with a very minor reputation, Marcello Mazzarella, plays Marcel (Ruiz picked him for his Proustian face)—but he is surrounded by the brightest stars of the art-house world of the time. There is John Malkovich, and Vincent Perez, and Emmanuelle Béart, and Pascal Greggory, and Catherine Deneuve.

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The best moment in the film is not in fact from Time Regained, but is the best moment in my favorite of the books, volume five, The Captive. This is the "little phrase" scene. In the book, the narrator Marcel sits in a room listening to a performance of a piece of music, "Sonata de Vinteuil," composed by Vinteuil (his first name is unknown), a musician who died in the first book, Swann's Way. When he hears the phrase, his mind leaves the room, the performance, the musicians, and spends several pages trying to express its beauty and why and how it affects him.

In the film, Ruiz captures the "little phrase" episode first with close-ups of Marcel's face filling and breaking with emotion as the music is performed by six musicians in a luxuriously appointed room. Then we see the people sitting and standing around him magically begin to move this way and that. Those sitting and standing in the front row slide to the left and stop. Those sitting and standing in the back row slide to the right and stop. Then Marcel begins to cry because sometimes—and this is the essence of the book, and maybe Proust's art—too much beauty can be painful.