"Love is an incurable malady," wrote Proust in his monumental novel Remembrance of Things Past. Since then, other artists and countless therapists have tried to describe the various stages of love sickness. Now, Volker Schlondorff, who brought to the sreen Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and Heinrich Boll's The Last Honor of Katharina Blum, has made a bold attempt to decode the "Swann in Love" episode from Proust's masterpiece. The result is an intriguing and eye-inveigling film.
The time is 1885, the milieu, Parisian high society. Swann (Jeremy Irons) is a Jewish gentleman with exquisite taste and a keen introspective sense. There is something indefinable about Odette (Ornella Muti) which first attracts Swann to her; it has no foundation in desire. But once he falls in love with her, he knows no peace of mind.
What seems to excite him most are her illicit relationships with women. Swann interrogates Odette and realizes that the possession of what we love is an even greater treasure than love itself. The problem is that she has no intention of becoming a possession: She tells him: "I'm not a museum piece."
As Swann wrestles with his contradictory feelings about this coquettish woman and begins to suffer physically over the affair, he earns the momentary sympathy of the Duchesse de Guermantes (Fanny Ardant), who has her own interests in him, and the hostility of Madame Verdurin (Marie-Christine Barrault), who sees Swann as unworthy of Odette. Although Swann's friend the Baron de Charlus (Alain Delon) suffers the same excruciating inner torment over his unrequited love for a young man, he proves unable to help him overcome his love sickness. The only cure and the one the protagonist chooses is marriage. However, in possessing Odette at last, Swann's love dies.
Volker Schlondorff's screen version of Swann in Love is beautifully mounted with careful attention given to the atmosphere and clothing of the period. Sven Nykvist's cinematography is stunning. Most satisfying is Jeremy Irons' portrait of Swann's love sickness, which comes across as a discordant blend of adoration, fear, pain, lust, jealousy and anguish. No doubt many viewers will want to reutrn to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, for an even more complicated delineation of "love as an incurable malady."