There is a truism that a great novel cannot provide the basis for a great — or even a very good — movie. If so, the 1999 Raúl Ruiz film, “Time Regained,” adapted from the last volume of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” is an exception that proves the rule.
Showing for a week in a new digital restoration as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second Ruiz retrospective, “Time Regained” is as close as Ruiz, the Chilean-born filmmaker who died in 2011, came to making the kind of entertainment that used to be called a “movie movie.”
As omnipresent as Proust’s narrator, the camera insinuates itself among the glamorous cast. Catherine Deneuve plays the former courtesan Odette de Crecy, with Emmanuelle Béart as her daughter Gilberte. Ms. Deneuve’s actual daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, has a cameo as the elusive Albertine. Marie-France Pisier trills her way through the film as the social climbing Madame Verdurin. Pascal Greggory and John Malkovich also have juicy roles, as Gilberte’s unfaithful husband and the cheerfully depraved Baron de Charlus.
Standing in for the book’s unnamed narrator is the little-known Italian actor Marcello Mazzarella, made up here with a dapper mustache and kohl-rimmed eyes to resemble Proust. He is referred to as “Marcel” and, in his outsize hat and overly large coat, cuts an almost Chaplinesque figure — an obvious outsider in this ostentatiously glittering ensemble.
Ruiz’s film has no particular plot. Or, rather, there are many. Proust’s “Time Regained” postscripts the action of his novel’s six preceding volumes. The narrator revisits past events and, in effect, explains how the entire work came into being. The movie opens with Marcel on his deathbed, imagining his novel. His recent return to Paris is much on his mind. World War I is raging as he re-encounters his old social circle, attends their soirees and observes their affairs. People are recalled at various ages; the writer is watched in memories by his childhood self.