When West Germany's Volker Schlondorff agreed to direct "Swann in Love" (at the Monica 4-Plex), he knew he'd be criticized by the Proustians for even attempting to film a portion of "Remembrance of Things Past," but he didn't let that stop him.
"I thought the French showed so little humor about it," he said recently. "They took it so damn seriously. It was as if I had broken a taboo--maybe one of the last taboos! There was an unholy coalition: people who thought the story was so boring that it shouldn't be filmed and those who believed Proust shouldn't be touched.
"I always felt that it should be left to the French, and they all warned me--Bertrand Tavernier and others: 'Beware, it's a trap, there's no story, you'll be despised whatever you do.' All of which happened! But the picture did pretty well in Paris--the reviews were mixed--and in London it did even better than 'The Tin Drum.' "
Schlondorff, who has become a film maker of international renown in the last decade, was speaking in his Chateau Marmont suite while on a quick trip to Hollywood on business.
A compact, prematurely bald man of 45 with an easy command of English (and French and Italian), he is as informal and open as he was on his first trip here in 1977. But now he has the assurance of a man who has succeeded in staying true to himself while expanding his vistas. He will soon begin directing Dustin Hoffman in a TV film of "The Death of a Salesman," amid stylized settings "so that the characters and the emotions will seem more real."
"Swann in Love," which charts a young aristocrat's fatal infatuation with a gorgeous courtesan, came to him when British director Peter Brook wasn't able to do it because of a prior commitment. Producer Nicole Stephane could wait no longer, as her rights to Proust were running out. Brook and his assistant, Marie-Helene Estienne, share the screenplay credit for "Swann in Love" with Jean-Claude Carriere, who earlier collaborated with Schlondorff on his adaptation of "The Tin Drum" and also "Circle of Deceit," a drama questioning the West's role in Lebanon.
"Half-jokingly, I said, 'Do you want me to jump in?' and they said 'Yes.' I told them I didn't want to read 'Remembrance of Things Past' over again, as my souvenirs were pretty strong. 'Swann in Love' is maybe not even the most typical Proust. It is about a falling in love which becomes like a sickness--like being stricken with a fever.
"I thought it was going to be a quickie job. We were all friends, and I felt confident I could handle it. But I was two years at it! I found out they didn't have any money, so I set up a co-production with Germany. I thought of it as an entirely French movie, but I couldn't find a Swann. Then I met Jeremy Irons, who spoke French.
"He does have a heavy accent, but he has all the right sensibilities; he's handsome, he's elegant. He could lend Swann an inner life that Proust was speaking about. I did have a meeting with Gerard Depardieu, but he said, 'No, you're right; it isn't for me.'
"I went to see Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert and several others. They all agreed that Odette was not a part for them. Just now the young French actresses are such modern women. They didn't fit the period. There's no young Simone Simon, or those wonderful actresses you see in Renoir. If they're going to blame me for trying to film Proust, anyway, I thought, what the hell, let's go for the Italian bosom star. That'll really scandalize them: I might as well go for the real thing!
"Proust described an Odette entirely different from Ornella Muti--more like a young Catherine Deneuve, a Botticelli. Without being bitchy, Odette nevertheless drives Swann crazy. But the craziness is all in him. She's asking only for a simple relationship, but he's treating her like an object for his collection--to put under glass, in a vitrine.
"It's an analysis of a love story, which is never a love story. I always thought that was perfectly feasible--that it must not be a Proustian film of memory but a film on love and jealousy."
Whatever the outcome, Schlondorff felt that making it would be a homecoming. At 15, he had gone to France for three months to study the language and ended up staying 10 years, completing his formal education there and becoming an assistant director to Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, the late Jean-Pierre Melville and others.
"For me, it was like a present," he said. "Clearing Rue de Rivoli, la Place de l'Opera for shooting: What a privilege! Here I was, where it all started for me. Making the film was a passionate affair with Paris from start to finish."
As a courtesy, Schlondorff spoke to Harold Pinter, who had adapted the entirety of "Remembrance of Things Past" for the late Joseph Losey, and to the late Luchino Visconti's writer, Suso Cecchi d'Amicos, who had adapted an entirely different section of the novel, dealing with the decay of the Baron de Charlus (played by Alain Delon in "Swann in Love"). Neither was ever to be made. But he found his greatest help in his producer, Stephane, who had played the sister in "Les Enfants Terribles" and whom Jean Cocteau helped to obtain the screen rights to "Remembrance of Things Past."
It was she who encouraged Schlondorff to go "in my own savage way."