FILM : Jeremy Irons Is the Fire in Flawed 'Swann in Love'

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Swann in Love," the last offering in Golden West College's spring foreign film series, is flawed in much the same way as other recent film adaptations of major novels.

Like James Ivory's interpretations of Henry James' "The Bostonians" and "The Europeans," this 1984 movie condensation of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" is ultimately dissatisfying as either a literary appreciation or a cinematic experience.

Director Volker Schlondorff, who was more successful in turning "The Tin Drum" into a movie in 1980, makes the same mistakes as Ivory did before him--in respecting Proust's work too much, he becomes intimidated by it. "Swann in Love" lacks a visual magnetism; it can be wan to the point of inert.

What "Swann in Love" does have going for it is a distinguished performance by Jeremy Irons, the British actor who just won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune."

As Charles Swann, a wealthy French aristocrat with a taste for self-destruction and the lovely courtesan Odette (Ornella Muti), Irons is hampered by Schlondorff's pallid direction. Nonetheless, he's able to do what he's done before--infuse his character with a self-defeating intelligence and almost painful personal awareness.

When Irons is in stride, his Swann communicates the obsessive attitudes that can come from love, especially the wrong kind of love. Swann may be an effete dandy without gravity, but he's also a man who has to face a passion that is ruinous.

Although "Swann in Love" lacks the provocative complexity of Proust's novel, Schlondorff can be credited with evoking something of the writer's wonderful attention to detail to set mood and provide insight. There aren't the literary layers of Proust, but the camera of Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's longtime cinematographer, explores the environment with a close eye.

A good example is Swann's visit to a Parisian brothel to gather information about Odette's past. Schlondorff and Nykvist offer an almost clinical appraisal of what it must be like to put your money down, take your pick to a back room and do what you've paid for.

As for Odette, Muti should be able to communicate the desirability of a woman whom someone like Swann would risk everything for. Well, with her pretty figure and sensual face, she's attractive, all right, but she doesn't succeed at creating the kind of mystery that makes everything else around her seem insignificant.

What: Volker Schlondorff's "Swann in Love."

When: Friday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Forum II theater, Golden West College, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Golden West Street and head south. The college is just north of Edinger Avenue.

Wherewithal: $3 and $3.50.

Where to Call: (714) 891-3391.

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