Swann in Love
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First published in France between 1913-1927, Marcel Proust's epic seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) has long been considered to be un-filmable, with moviemakers from Joseph Losey to Luchino Visconti stymied over the years in trying to bring it to the screen.
In 1984, however, a French film based on part of the overall work made it to cinemas as Swann in Love. It's adapted primarily from a self-contained story entitled Un Amour de Swann, which Proust included within the first volume of his novel (Swann's Way). That story concerns the bourgeois late 19th century Parisian protagonist, Charles Swann, falling for a prostitute, Odette, despite her indifference to him, which drives him to greater obsession and a loss of standing in society.
The film concentrates the tale to a single day in Swann's life, with Proust's themes of time and memory conjured by having the story told in flashbacks, with Swann seen as an old man recalling his experiences. That structure was the brainchild of Peter Brook, the renowned British theater and film director who was originally slated to direct Swann in Love. At a dinner one evening with his co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and the German director Volker Schlondorff, who had recently made his reputation with film adaptations of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum (1979), Brook mentioned that his schedule would not allow him to direct this picture and that his producer was scrambling to find a replacement. Schlondorff later recalled: "A terrific excitement gripped me... 'I am available,' I said half-jokingly without thinking it over."
Schlondorff had long loved Proust's work. "I was 16 or 17 when I first read Un Amour de Swann over a weekend," he recalled, "under the apple trees in the park of the Jesuit boarding school. In those days I had only one wish, like Charles Swann: to assimilate myself in France. Proust's tale opened up three new worlds for me: the French language and the society to which it belonged, the unfamiliar terrain of love, and jealousy."
When Schlondorff got the job, he set about casting the leads with surprising actors whom he nonetheless saw as sharing key qualities with their characters. The British star, Jeremy Irons, was an unexpected choice to play Swann, for instance, but Schlondorff believed he would bring a sense of outsider status that was appropriate for a character who, as a Jew in an anti-Semitic society, was also an outsider.
For Odette, Schlondorff resisted calls to cast Catherine Deneuve. He thought she was too established in audience's eyes as a grande dame and would be hard to accept as a "youthful courtesan who has yet to climb the social ladder...from a world so very different from Swann's." Instead, he went with Italian actress Ornella Muti. The director explained, "Ornella thought that an art film--like this adaptation of Proust--was beyond her reach, and that's precisely why I liked her." (Catherine Deneuve would eventually play Odette in another Proust adaptation, the 1999 French film Marcel Proust's Time Regained, directed by Raoul Ruiz.)
For the role of Baron de Charlus, whom Schlondorff described as "this portly, vicious and perverse baron from one of France's oldest families" (the character actually appears much later in Proust's novel), the director cast Michael Lonsdale, a fine actor of dual French and British background. But the distributor Gaumont insisted that the cast must have at least one full-fledged French star in a major role, and they insisted that Schlondorff recast the role with Alain Delon.
The movie placed these actors in sumptuous costumes and lavish sets, all beautifully filmed by renowned cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, but the very nature of the project perhaps inevitably resulted in a mixed reception. Many felt the result was unsatisfying for Proust. "The physical production is all that money and the photography by Sven Nykvist can attain," wrote The New York Times' Vincent Canby. "If you haven't read Remembrance of Things Past, it doesn't make a great deal of sense, but, if you have, it doesn't make enough."
Others reacted differently. Roger Ebert wrote: "Imagine...that this is not a film based on a novel, but a new film from an original screenplay. It will immediately seem more lively and accessible. Because not one person in a hundred who sees the film will have read Proust, this is a sensible approach; it does away with the nagging feeling that one should really curl up with those volumes before going to the theater."
And the Polish film historian Jerzy Plazewski later took an even more positive view: "Many critics and audiences (especially in France, where Proust is especially revered) took umbrage at even the attempt to adapt this great literary work... Schlondorff proved here that the legend of 'inadaptability for film' of certain literary texts is only a matter of talent and ideas."
Critics have also remarked upon the film's affecting use of music, composed by Hans Werner Henze, to instill a mournful, passionate quality that conjures Swann's interior state. As the German historian Wilfried Wiegand wrote, "One misunderstands this film if one does not also comprehend it as a musical work."
By Jeremy Arnold
Hans-Bernard Moeller and George Lellis, Volker Schlondorff's Cinema
Jerzy Plazewski, "Volker Schlondorff" chapter in Volker Schlondorff, a book edited by Marek Zydowicz, Agnieszka Swoinska, and Marek Zebrowski