SWANN IN LOVE (Volker Schlöndorff, 1984)

“Life is like an artist’s studio: full of half-finished sketches. We sacrifice everything to fantasies that vanish, one after the other.”

The elephant in whatever room that Charles Swann imperiously walks into in late nineteenth-century Paris is the known fact that he is Jewish. He doesn’t belong in its elite ranks, but how can society rid itself of his intrusion while maintaining a virtuous self-image? Charles is posh, educated, rich. Society lies in wait to find a justification for kicking him out. Ironically, the one person who couldn’t care less about his being Jewish, even though she is Catholic and mistreats him, on other grounds inside and outside mansions, is Odette de Crécy: the courtesan who patiently manipulates him into marriage. Charles wants to add Odette to his art collection; she simply wants his money—and the sense of power and independence it gives her that she can manipulate him. Once they are married, given Odette’s past, society has its pretext for shutting its doors to Charles. And Charles understands he is left with nothing, that Odette was never worthy of his obsessiveness. The quotation at the heading of this entry expresses what Charles Swann feels his life has turned out to be.
     From the story that is part of another story, Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann), in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu, literally, In Search of Lost Time), Un amour de Swann, from France and West Germany, is an engrossing, highly accessible study of human folly. New German Cinema’s Volker Schlöndorff directed from a script by himself, Jean-Claude Carrière, Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, drawing beautiful performances from Jeremy Irons as rakish-to-rueful Charles, Ornella Muti as bemused, triumphant Odette, and especially Alain Delon as Baron de Charlus, who, still in the carriage, as it were, pursues his own unreciprocated romantic obsession. One, Jewish, the other, homosexual, Charles and the Baron de Charlus suggest that these two friends and confidants combinately represent Proust. Their conversations thus wittily become Charles-ish: Charles keeping his best company.
     Along the way, filmmaker Schlöndorff scores a few visual coups: closeups of Charles’s hands in white dress gloves as a metaphor for his dogged presumption of “fitting in” in anti-Semitic Parisian society; the sumptuous façade of an opera house as a metaphor for the gorgeous, flimsy, pretend-gracious, and sturdy (as in determining who is admitted and who is barred entry) elements that Parisian society conjoins. But surely Schlöndorff’s greatest achievement here is the film’s sensitive fabric, wherein everything explodes, fails, turns up empty, as in things-turning-out-all right turning out to be Charles’s undemarcated dreams: once exposed as dreams, poignantly aching wish-fulfillment fantasies.
     Another coup: the suggestion that Charles’s lopsided, incoherent personality, which sets him off on his pursuit of Odette, owes something—owes much—to the duress of his tenuous acceptance by society, which is perpetually poised to reject him.
     A disappointing life; a powerful film.

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