03 February 2011

Proust, the Miniseries

Proust pour les Nuls: Lescot as the Narrator

The “tradition of quality” against which the auteurs of the New Wave rebelled, æons ago, is alive and well in France — on television, where we are periodically treated to tony adaptations of the lives of lusty kings and the fiction of great authors, in digestible two-hour doses of pretty costumes, authentic décors (most are filmed in real châteaux, rather than newly constructed sets), and B- and C-list actors.

In the case of the literary adaptations, the results resemble Masterpiece Theatre, and in truth some of the authors don’t suffer much from this treatment: Balzac cranked out innumerable short fictions in which the plot is the main thing, the characters are vivid, and the descriptions were mostly padding, because he was paid by the word. One loses little by putting his work on the small screen. In recent seasons, Maupassant’s short stories have been a special favorite, as well, explored in a recurring omnibus, Chez Maupassant, that has never been awful, and sometimes quite good.

Didier Sandre as the Baron de Charlus

Since Marcel Proust wrote about the period immediately following Maupassant, you can almost hear French TV programmers shrug their shoulders and ask, “Pourquoi pas?” And yet to the rest of us, the notion of presenting the entirety of A la recherche du temps perdu as a four-hour miniseries in two parts seems like — it must be — an elaborate joke.

Hélas, screenwriter–director Nina Companéez wasn’t kidding.

And the winner of this year’s Summarize Proust Competition is…

Companéez told one French interviewer* that, until recently, she’d agreed with everybody else: Proust must be unfilmable. Then a fan gave her encouragement, and she dove in headlong, adapting the multi-volume novel with astonishing efficiency.

But efficiency is of course one of the very, very last qualities that anyone might associate with Marcel Proust, and it raises larger problems when the task at hand is a dramatic adaptation. Except for very brilliant or very experimental directors, such as Raúl Ruiz, “dramatizing” is going to mean a focus on the plot, and while the Recherche has got a very good one, it’s not the main purpose of the novel. Proust is less interested in who did what, when, than he is in impressions and meaning, how ideas and events connect (“the concatenation of things,” as Charlus puts it), how memory resides in the senses, more than in the mind.

Lesbians at the seashore!
To her credit, Companéez didn’t bowdlerize the sex in Proust.

Instead of trying to translate Proust’s concerns into a visual and aural language, as Ruiz did in his adaptation of Le temps retrouvé (1999), Companéez gives us a dramatized Cliff’s Notes, highlighting most of the best-known scenes and characters, along with token but minuscule amounts of thematic material.

The first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, lays the groundwork for the rest of the novel, in the narrator’s impressions from childhood and in Swann’s affair with Odette, which prefigures the narrator’s affair with Albertine. Companéez dismisses the former in a couple of flashbacks and eliminates the latter altogether. That it’s possible to do better, even without digging too deep into the thematic material, can be seen in a series of graphic-novel adaptations of the Recherche by Stéphane Huet: Companéez’s script doesn’t even rise to the level of a bande dessinée.

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs.
Albertine (Tillette, left) and the Petite Bande at Balbec

And while Companéez borrows from previous screen adaptations (most notably, albeit very briefly, the shifting scenery devised by Ruiz), she doesn’t seem to have learned much from them — starting with the principal lesson that one must take one’s time in order to recover lost time.

Companéez gives us helpful title cards to tell us when we’re moving from one volume to the next (roughly every 40 minutes), and we get fleeting glimpses of all the major characters, sometimes incarnated by perfectly decent actors who don’t have time to flesh out their roles. Andy Gillet is obscenely handsome, and a good choice for Robert de Saint-Loup, but he’s bleached-blond beyond recognition and barely registers here; neither does the wily Françoise Bertin, as Mme de Villeparisis, though she does her darnedest to make every line count for as much as possible. Swann (Eric Ruf) is barely seen at all.

Saint-Loup (Gillet) and the Narrator (Lescot)
I’m pleased to tell you they’re in the arcade of the Palais-Royal.

Some characters in the Recherche are so juicy, actors must yearn to portray them, but the path is strewn with perils. How many actresses are the right age to play Albertine, yet capable of projecting the qualities that make her so mysterious and maddening? Sylvie Testud, who played her in Chantal Akerman’s adaptation of La captive (2000), managed to do it, but she’s a protean talent who can do almost anything, and she had the advantage of a contemporary idiom and costumes. (Akerman updated the story to the present day.**)

Caroline Tillette, who plays Albertine here, is very beautiful and displays a broad emotional range — but she falls just short of making herself compelling. As a result, the Narrator’s obsession, his mood swings, his outbursts seem more petulant than anything else.

Tillette and Lescot as Albertine and Marcel

And in Micha Lescot’s performance, the Narrator is the second-biggest problem with Companéez’s miniseries (right after the fact that she attempted the thing in the first place). Lescot is taller and thinner than Proust was, but he’s approximately the right type, and in certain scenes he’s better than competent. Yet he’s simply not mature enough as an actor to play a role of this complexity: the famous scene of the madeleine looked like a TV commercial. Lescot smiled and his eyes widened, and you expected to hear him say, “Miam, c’est trop bon, les madeleines de Combray!” A transcendent moment in literature — in all of human experience, really — is made insufferably inane.

In a variety of ways, Proust himself sabotaged anybody trying to dramatize or portray his Narrator. Not least of these is coyness with the Narrator’s name, which Proust admits — just once — is Marcel.*** It’s one thing when a prose writer glosses over the formalities of introduction when characters meet, quite another when we watch the scene and the poor Narrator is never once introduced by name. The awkwardness is built in.

Salon de beautés: The back of Lescot’s head meets
Saint-Loup (Gillet) and the Duchesse de Guermantes (Varela)

The Narrator must be wonderfully charming in the salon and the ballroom, or he wouldn’t be invited back so often, but Proust never wrote that dialogue — and Companéez doesn’t, either — so that most of the time poor Lescot must stand around looking like a dolt. We don’t understand what the Duchesse de Guermantes (Valentine Varela) sees in him.

Likewise, if the audience witnesses only the outward signs of the Narrator’s jealousy, and not the furious internal soliloquies and multi-page analyses found in the novel, then the Narrator appears to be overreacting, hysterical, peevish. It’s hard to identify with him — which is of course what Proust intends that we do.

Désolé, Monsieur, la maison est closed.
The Narrator meets Rachel Quand du Seigneur, not that it makes any difference.

One of the great pleasures of the Recherche is watching just how long it takes the Narrator to understand that Charlus is an “invert” (Proust’s favored term for “homosexual”). The Narrator is naïf and at first explains Charlus’ behavior by ascribing it to some form of aristocracy or eccentricity he’s never encountered before — while the astute reader understands almost immediately what’s going on. It’s pitch-perfect ironic comedy, on the page, but on the screen, the Narrator once again looks like an idiot. (In both book and miniseries, he fails to catch on until he plays Peeping Tom, spying on Charlus and Jupien.)

Boys keep swinging: Sandre as Charlus
Huge chunks of the miniseries were filmed in Cabourg,
the real-life model for Balbec.

Charlus gets a lot of screen time in this adaptation, and in Didier Sandre’s performance, he’s the best part of the show. (At one point, he even wears a replica of the suit that’s worn in a famous portrait of Robert de Montesquiou, one of the character’s real-life models.) Impeccably aristocratic even in abject despair, at once delicate and tempestuous, Sandre’s Baron is a vivid, gutsy creation.

Missed opportunity? Dominique Blanc as Mme Verdurin

My beloved Dominique Blanc is curiously restrained as Mme Verdurin, whose craftiness and comedy ought to have afforded her greater opportunity to enjoy herself, and to dazzle us. You keep thinking how interesting she’d be in this role — and then you remember that she’s already playing it. But Anne Danais fields a couple of nice scenes as Françoise, the housekeeper; and Catherine Samie, a distinguished actress with the Comédie Française, scores strongly as the Narrator’s devoted Grandmother.

Companéez gives us a full sequence of scenes in which the Grandmother happily prepares to have her photograph made, until the Narrator teases her: the resulting portrait is rather timid and sad (and beautifully played by Samie); shortly thereafter, the Grandmother suffers a stroke and dies. The Narrator instantly regrets his behavior toward her, but there’s worse to come: Françoise explains that, on the morning in question, the Grandmother had already suffered a first stroke, and while she was still able, she wanted the photograph to remind her grandson of a time when she was happy.

Catherine Samie onstage.
I have no idea what play this is from.

The Narrator’s regret is therefore compounded, and it will haunt him (and Proust’s readers) forever. To try to portray that regret in the context of a film, much less a TV miniseries, may not be impossible, but for conventional talents, it’s a fool’s errand. I don’t understand why Companéez attempted it, or why anybody greenlighted the project when she proposed it.

But let this much be said: at several points during the miniseries, I nodded off and, upon waking, wasn’t sure what movie I was watching. This is an indisputably Proustian experience — its equivalent is described in the first paragraph of the Recherche, after all. And so I must concede that Companéez succeeded, in part, even as she betrayed her author by making him something he never was before: dull.

Fateful encounter: Mme Verdurin (Blanc) meets
the Duc de Guermantes (Bernard Farcy).

*NOTE: Did France 2, the network that aired Companéez’s miniseries, have misgivings about the project? One clue may lie in the absence of the writer–director and cast members from the network’s interview programs. Typically, when France 2 has scheduled a “major event,” they devote some of their arts coverage (of which they boast an admirable amount) to background reporting and interviews on it, but if they did so for Companéez’s Recherche, I completely missed out.

**Ruiz and Akerman’s films were part of a projected series of films, one film and one director apiece for the seven volumes of Proust’s novel; the series was discontinued after Akerman completed her contribution. Her film is intriguing; Ruiz’s, brilliant. In the performances of Stanislas Merhar (in Akerman’s film) and Marcello Mazzarella (in Ruiz’s), Companéez and Lescot might have picked up useful pointers on how to portray Proust’s Narrator, but the idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of them.

***Contrary to the opinion of the promo writers at France 2, who billed the miniseries as “the memoirs of Marcel Proust,” the Recherche is anything but a conventional autobiography, as the author reminds us repeatedly.

APPENDIX: For an idea of how Ruiz and Akerman approached this material, here’s Mazzarella, a strong, mature actor, as Marcel, with Catherine Deneuve as Odette, in Le temps retrouvé:

Look at Mazzarella’s eyes: that’s how you play someone who thinks while he’s observing! In four hours, poor Micha Lescot didn’t give us anything as eloquent as this single image. Also please note that Mazzarella looks at least as much like Proust as Lescot does, so there’s no sacrifice of verisimilitude; and that Odette appears prominently in Ruiz’s movie, though she doesn’t in Companéez’s miniseries.

And here, in a mise-en-scène that speaks more clearly than anything you’ll see in that miniseries, are Merhar and Testud in Akerman’s La captive:


Roberts said...

They should have taken the central message of the All-England Summarize Proust Competition to heart: namely that it's foolish to try to summarize Proust.

William V. Madison said...

It was my intention to make that very point! (Albeit perhaps a touch less directly.)

Anonymous said...

I will now have the image of the narrator as a madeline commercial in my head all day. Brilliant as always, Bill!


kevinpask said...

The picture of Didier Sandre reminds me a bit of the young Mel Brooks. If only they could have gotten the young Gene Wilder for the role of Marcel.

William V. Madison said...

I've always imagined the Brooks troupe in Joyce’s work, rather than Proust’s. (Zero Mostel and Leo Bloom have something to do with that, surely.) But I daresay they could have lent something to the present enterprise. Harvey Korman might have made the superior Charlus, but who could possibly outdo Madeline Kahn as Mme Verdurin?

Yohalem said...

I see Cloris Leachman as Mme Verdurin (projecting insecurity while acting utter certainty) and Madeline as Odette, Bernadette Peters as Gilberte, Demi Moore (no sense of humor at all, a blank) as Albertine. But that's just me.

I loved the Ruiz film, have not seen the Akerman. You make me eager to see the Charlus in the Companeez ... but mostly eager to see all those historical films! I bet they did a series on Francois Ier, much the most cinematic of French monarchs; probably something humorous on Henri III and Louis XVIII too. And Louis XI! The mind reels! (and unreels)

William V. Madison said...

Come to think of it, Cloris Leachman, in full Phyllis Lindstrom-mode, would make a brilliant Mme Verdurin. And Madeline — who liked to play the pretty girls — would surely thank you for suggesting her as Odette.

The historical TV dramas are a mixed bag, but the French also give us lots of sexy documentaries. Over the summer, we had a miniseries on women, sex, and power: Diane de Poitiers, Mme de Pompadour, et al. You'd find something to amuse you, I think.

Michael Leddy said...

“Miam, c’est trop bon, les madeleines de Combray!” That’s too funny, Bill. Your writing here almost redeems what sounds like an utter travesty (almost, because I guess it’s unredeemable).

How about Laird Cregar as the Baron?

William V. Madison said...

Michael, I confess, I had to look up Laird Cregar! But yes, now that I recognize him, he might have been a good Charlus.

Chevron d'Azur said...

Adapting Proust for another medium can be interesting: I enjoyed the «bandes dessinées» even though they could only provide tiny bits of La Recherche. Lescot seems to possess that feverish look that I always imagined.

William V. Madison said...

I agree that Huet's bandes dessinées were extremely well done, and I hope we haven't seen the last of them.

As for Lescot -- well, I've said my piece on that subject, haven't I?

Lvowski said...

Il faut sans doute accepter le fait qu'une adapatation cinématographique ou télévisuelle du roman de Proust est impossible, et que Visconti était "le" metteur en scène qui aurait pu y parvenir. Son adaptation de "La Mort à Venise" de Thomas Mann, tout aussi inadaptable est un chef d'oeuvre. Il est vrai que le film de Ruiz est une réussite, l'écriture et la distribution, le parti pris de privilégier "Le temps retrouvé", tout est juste. Le travail d'écriture de Nina Companez, est extrêmement intéressant et intelligent. Je suis moins convaincu de la distribution des rôles, St-Loup est exactement comm on peut l'imaginer, y compris la célèbre blondeur Guermantes, qu'il partage avec sa tante, la duchesse du même nom, la Grand-Mère est magnifique, ce qui n'étonne pas de la part de Catherine Samie qui est une immense actrice.Didier Sandre est certainement le Charlus le plus convaincant et le plus proche du personnage créé par Proust que nous ayons vu à l'écran. Rien à voir avec Delon dans le film de Schlondorff (?), et même si le Charlus de Ruiz est excellent, Didier Sandre est totalement extraordinaire. Je reste infiniment plus dubitatif sur l'interprétation du narrateur par Micha Lescot, on finit par s'y habituer, mais que de minauderies, de battements de cils, d'oeillades de biche, bref, pourquoi avoir fait de Proust un personnage aussi effiminé, quand on sait, notamment par Morand, qu'il détestait les efféminés et qu'il était lui-même très viril dans son attitude? Cela étant,ne boudons pas notre plaisir, l'adaptation de Companez est intéressante et son principal mérite est de nous convaincre de lire ou relire "La Recherche".

William V. Madison said...

En effet, si l'on peut espérer que cette adaptation sera suffisamment persuasive, et que les téléspectateurs (re)trouveront La Recherche, il faut pas se plaindre trop. Mais moi, je suis un peu moins optimiste sur ce point, à la fin.

A part cela, je suis ravi d'observer que nos avis s'accordent si bien. Merci beaucoup!

Lvowski said...

Je lis dans votre présentations que vous avez été à l'emploi de Teresa Stratas, savez-vous ce qu'elle est devenue? son interprétation ou plutôt création de "Lulu" est restée inoubliable pour ceux et celles qui l'ont vue, et sa "Salomé" était aussi magnifique. Je serais heureux de savoir ce qu'elle devient...

William V. Madison said...

Teresa Stratas a pris sa retraite et vit tranquillement, sortant de temps en temps pour des événements publiques. Le plus remarquable, peut-être, c'est les longs cheveux blancs qui cascadent jusqu'à son dos: elle est toujours ravissante, mais d'une manière nouvelle.

Hervé Plagnol said...

In this stupid series, you can see the narrator and a group of girls on a cliff with, behind, the barges of Arromanche, arrived on D day in 1944 !!!