Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
To place this review in the context of its shamefully under-read author, Gigi this movie ain't. Marcel Proust is considered the epitome of sophistication in writing (I tried a whole chapter once) but remains a respected giant; it's no small achievement when a filmmaker escapes in one piece after attempting a film adaptation of such a classic.
I can't judge Swann in Love as a literary adaptation but it certainly plays as a successful movie. Jeremy Irons' 1890 French swain is remarkably accessible, considering what an officious clot of a human being Swann is. The beauty of the film is that we recognize his better qualities in a priggish society of peers. Aristocratic boors seem to be the same in all cultures, and German director Volker Schlöndorff's vibrant and convincing recreation of this decadent world is a sight to behold.
Wealthy rake Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons) is ruining his social reputation by consorting with Odette de Crecy (Ornella Muti), a ravishing courtesan who capriciously toys with his affections. Advised by fellow man-about-town the Baron de Charlus (Alain Delon) and tempted back to "acceptable" company by a married Duchess (Fanny Ardant), Swann continues on his jealous, destructive course.
Ravishing, independent Odette de Crecy lives on the favors of fancy gentlemen but is neither a consumptive lady of Camelias nor a nasty social climber. She is an incredible tease; unable to get a desirable reaction -- namely a marriage proposal -- from Charles Swann, she opts to drive him crazy by withholding her favors.
Odette is basically a cultured whore, but she actually seems less compromised than most of the inhabitants of this amazingly detailed Parisian world. Snobbery is everything, and an open disdain for others being standard operating procedure when out in society. Young, available men like Swann and his annoying bisexual friend the Baron (Alain Delon in a truly off-putting characterization) literally raise their noses to people who might seek their attention. At salon gatherings and violin recitals, they carry on contemptuous conversations, mocking anyone they find worthy of their scorn.
These rich and spoiled peacocks live an entirely artificial lifestyle. We observe the shifting tides of who is acceptable in whose company, and whose greetings will be returned and whose ignored. The clothing these people wear is so elaborate as to require a woman to have a servant at all times - some of the dresses are far too difficult to get into alone. Odette has dresses in various states of construction or repair at all times; it's likely that she has unpaid debts to dressmakers, even with Swann's favor money. As for Swann, he has valets, servants and a coachman on call at all times. These people are always there and always necessary, but considering how they're treated they might as well be furniture.
The decadent society is shown from several angles. The married Duchess openly courts Swann and it's doubtful that an affair between them would harm Swann's relationship with her husband. The Baron uses his oily charm on a handsome (but clearly not wealthy) young artist, if you can call a series of sleazy come-ons and manipulations charming. Swann cools his frustration at Odette's coquetry by visiting a lavish brothel, there to pry information about her from a prostitute. Schlöndorff doesn't spare the erotic details.
Odette manages to work Swann up into a veritable frenzy by playing him against a cartoonish competitor and forcing him to chase her from the opera to a late-night dinner. By the time he stalks back to her rooms in the wee hours of the morning, Odette has him so confused that he imagines suitors hiding in the corners. He's heard talk of her having lesbian encounters with female clients, and her evasions only drive him crazier.
Jeremy Irons' Swann is quite a creation, a vain aesthete who recognizes nobody's appreciation of art over his personal tastes. He'll rhapsodize over a painting and then denigrate somebody else's choices. This comes to a pretty pass when he chases Odette to a dinner party with an unfashionable group of people. He wants to get and keep the Odette's attention, but can't help but react to the undesirables around him. Understanding Swann is a tall order, and liking him is almost impossible. He's a fascinating portrait of a man in an extinct society.
Ornella Muti is indeed a vision of beauty. She flaunts herself before Swann when he can't have her, and is about as manipulative a tease as can be imagined. She's fascinating because she's also an empowered and independent operator in a tough environment: socially unacceptable but also socially unstoppable.
Swann in Love ends with a future that is in no way a happily-ever-after. Swann's relationship with the Duchess is now so superficial that he can't get her to take him seriously, even though he insists he's in bad health and dying. It's just too inconvenient, socially. His relationship with Odette has continued, but it seems bleak as well. We leave the film certain that it has dimensions that have soared over our heads, but we certainly have spent some quality time in a richly-drawn, uncompromised Parisian past.
Home Vision's DVD of Swann in Love is a beauty, with Sven Nykvist's shimmering cinematography coming across impressively, especially the inky nighttime scenes. This movie is an expensive vision of a lost past where every piece of furniture, every carved-wood door and every piece of fabric looks like an antique out of a time machine.
Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis provide astute liner notes that make Savant feel even farther from literary fluency than he cares to admit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Swann in Love rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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