When you set out to make a movie of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," you have to start with the clear understanding that it is, of course, impossible.
"I know anyhow that justice can't be done," said Volker Schlo ndorff. "What I can do is make a film that will work on its own."
For 21 years producer Nicole Stephane had searched for the right director. French filmmakers -- Truffaut, Resnais, Malle -- wouldn't touch it. Joseph Losey got as far as having Harold Pinter write a brilliant screenplay, later published as a book. Luchino Visconti got as far as lining up Brando and Bardot for a film on the Sodom and Gomorrah section, and then he died.
Schlo ndorff was the eighth to try.
His "Swann in Love" opens today at the Key Theater.
The basic problem in adapting the book to film is the famously difficult style in which the seven fat volumes are written, the sentences (one of them more than three pages long), serpentine things, organic, with lives of their own, that meander and twist and rhythmically pulse and swell and finally burst upon the reader, capturing details with a three-dimensional, palpable accuracy that goes far beyond the merely photographic, revealing insights in a seemingly random way so that the truth dawns gradually, as it does in life, in little jolts of comprehension made possible only by the reader's own unperceived growth.
Proust becomes a way of life for many readers. They read him over and over, three, four, eight, a dozen times, coming to know the great characters as living people, bathing luxuriously in the familiar long, vivid scenes, the wry, delicious wit, the gentle humor, the surgical analyses of anguished love, the startlingly precise descriptions (those superbly groomed carriage horses that Proust compared to wasps), the teeming richness of detail that brings this book closer to the actual feel of life -- even the life of a lost time and place -- than any other ever written.
"It's like a drug," the director said in a recent visit here. "One becomes an addict."
Knowing this, knowing that the addicts could never be satisfied, he struck out on his own to create not a reenactment of the book, but a new work of art. He based his film on the 200 pages of "Swann in Love," a fairly self-contained section of the vast novel.
"We tried not just to tell a story, any more than Proust did. We take 24 hours in Swann's life and we see what happens during this day and that's what we tell. Perhaps some nouveau Proustians would protect a noninitiated audience from this sort of film -- they would say, 'Well, I can understand, but what are the poor ordinary people to do with it . . .' "
"Swann in Love," Schlo ndorff insists, is made for everyone.
The chronicle of the Parisian dandy's affair with the courtesan Odette, and the crazed jealousy that infects his love even as it titillates his passion, is compressed into a single day as Swann drifts from salon to soiree to brothel, surrounded by the congested and ornate decor of 1885 Paris.
Certain minor events from the book are shown on the screen without the author's comments (which were, after all, the reason for writing about them in the first place), and this may indeed prove momentarily baffling to those who haven't read it. But these moments can also be taken simply as part of the film's rich fabric, part of the atmosphere.
"If you're attentive, everything is there to be discovered," Schlo ndorff said. "The film is self-sufficient. You see these strange social rituals, the gentlemen dressing to go out . . . it's a way to observe someone, to discover things. You just sort of sink into it, and only when it's over does the puzzle clear itself."
The lavish production values do not aim simply at providing atmosphere, however. "We tried to show a certain ugliness about that period. The rooms are never lighted. Swann's own home is like a mausoleum, a grave, and he the living corpse in there. The whole society is only made of fac,ades, terribly dry, like French architecture sometimes is, all emotions eliminated from it. Like French gardens, absolutely geometric, nothing baroque about it. This exists still in Paris. One can find those rooms. There are still those people, too."
The extras are a triumph. Most are authentic modern-day Parisian aristocrats -- Cambronnes, Breteuils, de la Moussayes, Chavagnacs -- who were introduced to the director by his friend and former mentor Louis Malle.
"We had to turn people away. They all wanted to be in it. Incredibly well-behaved people, a lot of hand-kissing. Some would come and ask me whether they should tip the makeup girl. The women looked like birds, all those feathers, those strange tails like peacocks. I thought it should be like watching ants, a sort of museum of human history, a cabinet ornithologique."
They do seem like stuffed birds, or like ostriches, their erect heads moving with slow, mindless dignity from side to side. Like phantoms. The effect is stifling, airless, exactly what Proust conveyed.
One reason Schlo ndorff chose the very English Jeremy Irons as Swann was precisely because he was a foreigner among these aristocrats, and they subtly treated him like one. A small but vital point, for Swann, a Jew, was always an outsider in Parisian society.
Irons spoke accurate but rather tentative French, picked up in a three-month Berlitz crash course, and this is what American audiences hear. For accent-conscious French audiences, however, his voice was dubbed into authentic Parisian.
"Malle found it very amusing, me coaching Jeremy, with my accent. 'He speaks like you do,' he'd say."
As for Ornella Muti, the beautiful Italian actress who plays Odette, she had to be talked into the part.
"Ornella hadn't read the book at all. I went to see her in California, and I sat down in a chair -- she was lying on the floor rolling around with her dogs -- and told her this love story. 'This very intelligent man, say like myself, complicated in his feelings, meets a woman like you, and she doesn't know the first thing about culture and all that . . .,' and we went through it and she understood perfectly what it was all about. That's why she has so much dignity in the film -- because she protects this person whom Proust doesn't really have much estimation for. He didn't much care for her, I think."
His main concern, and Proust's, he added, was not so much to do a period piece, a portrait of a decadent 19th-century society, as to examine human emotions.
"I saw only the heart, the jealousy, feelings. It is a key to the regions of the heart, as the French say in their 18th-century language. Proust tells the same stories that other authors tell, but he gets so much into details, he becomes so precise about each movement of the heart that at the end you don't know anything anymore, you can't get hold of it. Nothing is simple. Other writers give their people a limited set of characteristics, but Proust is telling everything. He is writing about the unseizable. That's the challenge."
One prime source for the film was "Jean Santeuil," the gigantic novel that was Proust's rehearsal for "Remembrance" and that the writer courageously abandoned after 700 pages because he saw the far grander vision.
"The same story of Swann is there, only it's between a 19-year-old student, Proust himself, and a young bourgeois lady whom he suspects to have had a lesbian relationship. The amazing thing is that he uses the same dialogue between a whore and a dandy, a man of the world who must surely know that the woman has been with hundreds of men, and yet it works. It shouldn't work, but it does."
Much of the staging in the film, including the scene of Swann knocking on the wrong window as he tries to catch Odette with someone else, is taken from the more literal, conventionally written earlier novel.
Schlo ndorff, 45, has specialized in making films from books. His first effort was "Young Torless," in German, his most celebrated an adaptation of Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum," for which he won a prize at Cannes in 1979 and an Oscar. He also translated onto celluloid Marguerite Yourcenar's hallucinatory novel "Coup de Grace."
"In an adaptation," he writes in his preface to the you've-seen-the-movie-now-read-the-book paperback of "Swann in Love," "it is not enough to base the film on the text; one must rediscover the author's motivation, the force that made him write. I must find in myself equally powerful reasons."
But another strain runs through the director's work. He started as a TV reporter in Algeria and Vietnam, and three years ago made a film, "The Forgery," in the midst of the fighting in Beirut.
"In Beirut I always felt I was running after actuality, always running behind, but it had already changed when I got there. That's what news is all about. Then when I came to work on Proust, I don't have to run after the event because I have something permanent there. I know it's always contemporary, always actual."
Brought to Paris at age 16 (his doctor father wanted him to learn French), Schlo ndorff stayed 10 years, came to understand the French character, switched from the study of philosophy to film, assisted Malle, later Melville and Resnais. In fact, his work on Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" reverberates in the opening scene of "Swann in Love," with its voiceover narration, suggesting Proust himself writing in bed, recollecting the turbulent events that will follow.
The Wiesbaden native also has a degree in politics and economics. Besides his 12 films and four more as codirector, he has directed TV and opera. He is married to Margarethe von Trotta, the actress who starred in and codirected "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum."
"I've been working with Gunter Grass on a sequel to 'The Tin Drum,' but that may wait a couple years. What I really want to do is a comedy, set at a peace conference, but it's hard. Comedy is very hard. I'd like to do some more documentary work, too."
At the moment, though, Schlo ndorff has his hands full shepherding "Swann in Love" through the thickets of critics who either blanch at his daring to try it at all or want him to do a sequel.
"Some of them feel film and literature shouldn't be mixed, and see themselves as protecting literature against the attacks of filmmakers. Whereas writers generally rather enjoy seeing the movies made of books because they're so entirely different that they can't harm the books anyhow, and they enjoy it like a writer would like to have a piece transformed into music. They enjoy it at another level.
"Why compare it to the book at all? Nobody compares Verdi's 'Otello' to Shakespeare. They compare it to 'Rigoletto.' Look. Proust tried new ways of writing. So why shouldn't we try to find new ways of telling the story?"