At moments the director creates overlapping images which suggest multiple realities overlaying each other. At other times the film repeats itself, slightly altering the flow of occurrences. Surrealist images—including a room filled with black top hats each holding a pair of white gloves, a scene in which the partygoers are turned to stone for the child Proust’s cinematic entertainment, and a scene in a male bordello that features a sadomasochistic beating of the Baron Charlus (a beating which dissatisfies him in its timidity) by a young street-boy with Proust voyeuristically peering in on the action from a ceiling window. But mostly Ruiz’s camera focuses on the lavish parties and funerals of these wealthy Frenchman, in which people, along with hundreds of canapés and glasses of champagne, are swallowed up and spit out with sarcastic spite. Behind it all, we perceive, are the trenches filled with the dead men of World War I, a reality which will soon completely bring this close-minded society to its end. But as in Proust’s long work, the figures of his belle-epoch do not have clue about what lies ahead, and in fact are clueless about anything including the significance of their actions or lack of. Any coherent “meaning” we might glean from Ruiz’s stunningly gorgeous piece of cinema can come only from how we ourselves interpret these images, what we make of them. And as the critic J. Hoberman has pointed out, the film almost seems to be a film about a man who through his words created a kind of cinema himself.
In short, this film is less about “events” than it is about the process of film-making or creating a fiction, focusing on how the mind perceives what the body’s eyes see, how it edits/processes those images, and how it puts them together or recalls them. All of Proust’s central characters—Odette de Créy (Catherine Deneuve), Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart), Le Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich), Robert Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory), Albertine (Chiara Mastrioianni), Morel (Vincent Perez), Madame Verdurin (Marie-France Pisier), and Madame Cottard (Dominique Labourier), even, for an instant, Swann (Bernard Pautrat)—are here, but Ruiz centers little on the continuity of their interactions, and even when it is quite apparent what they doing behind the scenes—for example Saint-Loup’s affair with the actress Rachel (Elsa Zylberstein) or his later sexual infatuation with working-class infantrymen—events never truly coalesce into a “plot.” Indeed, Ruiz purposely, at times, mystifies the interrelationships of his figures, merely suggesting the lesbian bondings of some of his women or hinting at the Baron’s vicious political views and his pedophile tendencies with regard to the young Marcel. Accordingly, even those who have never set their eyes upon a page of Remembrance of Things Past can enjoy this film. Indeed, if one has read the book, although it might help to enlighten certain scenes, it will more likely frustrate the moviegoer, since nothing comes of it.
So removed from action is Ruiz’s Proust, as he shyly if debonairly winds his way through these wealthy charlatans, that he seems—as is more concretely revealed in the scene at the gay bordello—more like of voyeur than an actor. Of course, that is precisely the director’s role in filmmaking, to catch his actors “in the act” and mold them into a more coherent reality. But the “reality” here is not as coherent or orderly as a thing in process, as—much like Penelope of the Odysseus myth—Ruiz weaves and unweaves his tapestry again and again, as the various Proustian figures dance around one another as in a grand ball.