With the recent 100th anniversary of his death on November 18, everyone’s talking about Proust! You remember Proust: The French novelist, essayist, and critic Marcel Proust (né Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust) who famously wrote Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu, which, lately in English, is going by the title In Search of Lost Time), a novel in seven volumes set amongst the aristocratic classes of Paris during the belle époque. The book in its entirety comes to somewhere between 3200 and 4300 pages, depending on the edition. The Vintage boxed set weights 7.39 pounds!
The man widely considered to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century is probably best known for a cookie/cake—c’est vrai, un biscuit! Ask most moderately educated/literary-minded adults (at least Gen X and up) what they know about Proust, and they’re likely to say something like, “Isn’t he the madeleine guy?”
Early in his book, the protagonist, Marcel, takes a bite of a madeleine—those spongy little yellow cakes, which, according to Proust, “look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell”—dunked in tea, and the taste unlocks a memory of his aunt Leonie, who on Sunday mornings would feed him “a little crumb of madeleine… dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.” He goes on: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” Since then, the term “Proustian moment” has been used to describe when a sensory experience, especially a scent, triggers a forgotten memory of a particular time or place.
While certainly worthwhile, reading À la recherche du temps perdu is a massive and intimidating undertaking. I, for example, have been meaning to get around to reading it for the last thirty years! Luckily, several directors have taken a stab at adapting Proust’s masterpiece for screen. Consensus has it that no one has yet quite hit the mark. Three versions take on only one volume and a French television series attempted to include the whole plot, only to be critically skewered. My thought is this: With the apparent endless demand for quality content at Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and the rest of the streaming gang, I’d love to see someone do Proust’s masterpiece justice.
What would Bridgerton’s Shonda Rhimes do with Remembrance of Things Past? Or The Crown’s Peter Morgan, Succession’s Jesse Armstrong, Emily in Paris’ Darren Star, or Call My Agent!’s Fanny Herrero? What twisted humor and insight might The White Lotus’ Mike White bring to Proust?
For now, we can only imagine. And, this weekend, while stuffing our happy faces full of leftover Thanksgiving madeleines—or, more likely, pumpkin pie—we might dip into one of the existing cinematic attempts to bring the refined, poetical world of the master of nostalgic deliciousness to screen.
Swann in Love (1983) Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
In this adaptation of the first book, Swann’s Way, Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons), an eligible bachelor and would-be perfect catch for some pretty heiress among the 1890’s Parisian elite, instead falls hard for a beautiful courtesan, Odette de Crecy (Ornella Muti), which turns out to be social suicide. The script is by the brilliant film and theater director, Peter Brooks.
Stream Swann in Love on the Criterion Channel.
Time Regained (1999) Directed by Raúl Ruiz
Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz adapted only the final volume of Proust’s oeuvre. The story involves the narrator, Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella, voiced by Patrice Chéreau) reflecting on his past as he lies in his deathbed. The device allows the director to dip into favorite scenes from earlier volumes. This is the most critically recognized of the adaptations, and it screened at Cannes, and it boasts an all-star cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich and Pascal Greggory.
Rent Time Regained on Amazon Prime.
The Captive (2000) Directed by Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman transforms the fifth volume, La Prisonnière, into a story of voyeurism, control, and sexual obsession. Simon, a neurotic young man (Stanislas Merhar) lives in a meandering apartment with his ailing grandmother, a family servant and his passive lover (Sylvie Testud), the object of his unquenchable desire and obsessive jealousy. He stalks her, spies on her, and becomes convinced she’s involved in a lesbian relationship. The couple is, in fact, imprisoned in a cycle of longing and obsession that can only lead to self-destruction.
Watch the trailer here.
Stream The Captive on the Criterion Channel.
À la recherche due temps perdu (2011) Directed by Nina Companeez
This two-part television series attempted to adapt the entire novel, with the exception of the first volume, Swann’s Way. Reviews were mixed, many wondering about the wisdom of taking on the enormity of the entire novel. As described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “the whole thing is reduced to two feature-length episodes; it whizzes past like a breezy daytime soap. The first and most famous volume, Swann’s Way, is truncated almost to nothing, Swann himself – the aesthete and collector whose life and obsessive love make such an impression on Marcel, and whose Judaism is at the centre of Proust’s observations on antisemitism and the Dreyfus affair – is reduced to a cameo. His mistress-turned-wife, Odette, vanishes from the story entirely.” Other critics praised the accessibility of the script, the lavish production design and performances that included Micha Lescot, Didier Sandre, and Dominique Blanc.
Stream A la recherche du temps perdu on arte Boutique.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex & the movies column for IFC, and a horror screenplay for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY, and the Boston Globe.