Saturday, May 10, 2014

"The Invention of Morel" (1940) by Adolfo Bioy Casares (Best Novellas)

Some years ago I watched the film Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais without knowing that in fact Resnais was inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel by the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. This is the type of labyrinthine novella Borges might have written himself, had he tried longer forms (in fact, Borges and Bioy Casares wrote several books together, which unfortunately still await translation). What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common, is that characters in both who are repeating certain actions and conversations, are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which include all the five senses and are indistinguishable from reality.

In Bioy Casares' novella a nameless fugitive from a Latin-American country arrives on a remote, abandoned island somewhere in Polynesia. It is hinted that the island has the stigma of disease over it. The island is now uninhabited, but that has not always been the case, as the fugitive finds several large buildings and even a swimming pool. In the basement of the largest building he also discovers some mysterious machines.

Then, suddenly, there appear many sophisticated people on the island - holidaymakers, so to see, moving alone or in small groups through the buildings, sitting at the poolside, playing tennis or strolling around the island. It is unclear how the visitors have arrived, there is no ship. The fugitive tries to hide, afraid the tourists will turn him in to the authorities, but he has to come back to the building for food, and above all, he has become attracted to a beautiful young woman in the group - based by Bioy Casares on the film star Louise Brooks.

The fugitive catches her name, Faustina, but she seems to have a relation with a bearded tennis player who is called Morel. As he will learn later, Morel is in fact a scientific genius - his name and person resemble "Doctor Moreau" in H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Everyday Faustina watches the sunset alone from a cliff on the western side of the island. The fugitive makes a flower garden for Faustina, but she never acknowledges it; next, he becomes so bold as to speak to Faustina, but she looks right through him. The other people also don't seem to notice him. Next, he is struck by a strange phenomenon: suddenly there are two suns in the sky.

The fugitive starts worrying that something weird is happening to him. Is he dead and existing as a ghost (similar to the narrator of Nabokov's The Eye)? Or has his political "crime" made him socially invisible?

Later, the fugitive finds out the truth when he listens stealthily to a meeting of the whole group of visitors in the large building. Morel discloses to them that for the past week he has been recording all their words and actions, with a machine that can reproduce reality. Morel explains that through looping the recording will enable them to relive that week forever. (The wind and tide will feed the machine with kinetic energy and will keep it running indefinitely). The fugitive realizes that he has not been seeing real people, but only a recording superimposed on the reality of the island.

But the fugitive also learns that the people recorded during previous experiments are now dead - the force of the superimposed reality is apparently so strong that it draws life from those recorded and places their consciousness in the projected copy. It is the inversion of The Picture of Dorian Gray - the "hologram" (my term) takes on greater reality than its original subject. The recreation of past events supplants the current reality of the participants. It are, by the way, these thoughts about consciousness and the recurrence of time that elevate the story to Borgian levels: an ordinary week, pleasantly but unspectacularly lived through, becomes an eternal prison.

The fugitive decides to record himself, too, and has his soul pass to the image - the only way he can for ever be together with the reproduction of the woman he loves...

This is a splendid tale, suffused with a haunting beauty and the feeling of loss and regret, like the film it inspired, Last Year at Marienbad. 

The English translation by Ruth L.C. Simms was published by the New York Review of Books. Senses of Cinema article on Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Gansenji and the stone Buddhas of the Tono Hills

Around Nara, there are several areas of gentle, green hills where priests of large temples as Todaiji and Kofukuji who wanted quiet for meditation could retire to. Muro is one such area, the district between the Kasuga Shrine and Yagyu another. But the largest one lies just over the present-day prefectural border inside Kyoto and is called "Minami-Yamashiro." It includes the Kasagi mountains and the gentle Tono area. Surrounded by streams and lush verdure, this region was the sacred hinterland of Nara. As a result, Minami-Yamashiro is dotted with early temples founded in the Nara (710-794) to the Heian (794-1185) periods. Deeply embedded in the rocks one also finds many reliefs of stone Buddhas, a testimonial to the religious austerities that took place in these silent hills.

Tono is a quiet village surrounded by low hills, near the border of Kyoto and Nara prefectures. Joruriji with its Nine Amida hall is the most famous ancient temple here, but the one most clearly connected with the stone carvings is Gansenji, a beautiful small temple set in a narrow valley where in all seasons flowers bloom. As an added bonus, the temple has a great Amida statue.

Gansenji was purportedly founded in the Nara period, but little is certain about its early history - the temple's engi, the history of its origin written by the temple itself, is as usual rather unreliable, trying to plug the temple into the history of the nation by linking it with the imperial house and several famous priests. But there is no proof for this. The earliest reliable date is the inscription on Gansenji's main statue, a seated Amida Buddha, which is dated Tengyo 9 or 946.

[Pagoda of Gansenji among the fresh green leaves of early spring]

That statue is 284.5 cm high, made from one piece of keyaki wood (Japanese zelkova), lacquered and gilded. It is an important cultural asset that conveys the prosperity of the Heian-period. It is also an early instance of the Amida cult, which would a century later find an even more perfect expression in the Byodoin temple in Uji.

The temple also has a set of Shitenno (Four Deva Kings), protectors of the altar, dating from the Kamakura period and a Heian-period Fugen Bosatsu in a beautiful cabinet. The stone reliefs one finds in the vicinity of Gansenji date all from the Kamakura-period, giving an idea of the period during which the temple flourished. The present temple buildings are more recent - the pagoda dates, for example, from 1442.

[Fudo Myoo carving on a rock]

It is said that a carved rock at the entrance to the temple, which looks like a boat or a bath tub (or a coffin, if you want) is the origin of the temple name: Gansenji, Rock Boat Temple. But in Japanese mythology, gods are believed to come down from heaven in "rock boats" and these are usually just big rocks - and many such huge rocks can be found in the vicinity of the temple (big rocks were also believed to be places where gods dwelt in), so that seems a better explanation for the temple name.

[Amida Triad, "the smiling Buddha"]

Most of the stone reliefs lie along the path that runs from Gansenji to Joruriji, a walk of just 40 minutes. This path is called Sekibutsu no Michi, or "Path of the Stone Buddhas." The first part of the path goes steeply down a sandy hill, but there is a handrail. Later the path passes over a ridge before descending to some rice paddies. The last part is over an ordinary road. 

Besides a humorous Fudo Myoo (difficult to see as the relief has been damaged by the dampness here), we find several Amida statues or Amida Triads, as well as the omni-present Jizo.

Best Films Based on Classical Novels (1): Novels before 1925

It appears that one third of all films is based on a novel, and when you include plays and short stories, even twice that much - showing, by the way, how little originality there is in the world of screen writers. But in fact, most of these novels are genre works or books that nobody has ever heard of. It is relatively easy to film genre novels (crime novels etc.), as these consist mainly of plot. Plot may have to be simplified a bit to fit in a two hour film, but in the case of genre novels that is all there is to it: from plot to plot.

Filming literature is much more difficult, because here we have many elements that are in fact unfilmable, at least in a direct way: descriptions of character, the thoughts of characters, sometimes in indirect discourse, the ideas of the author, the perspective from which he presents the story and his "voice" (style). How is it possible to convey something of the particular voice of a Henry James or a Nabokov? On top of that great novels are filled with ambiguities, which when translated into images end up seeming like literal fact.

Of course, film also has its own strengths - the immediacy of images, the magnetism of certain actors / actresses, the camera work, the play of light and shadow, etc. - and there are great authoral directors who also possess a "voice" (although perhaps less than a literary author, for film is always a collaboration). And let's not forget great actors / actresses who may give a new and interesting interpretation of the main character from a novel.

Another point when filming literature is that it makes little sense to just pick out the plot (as is all too often done) - this reduces a great novel to the level of genre literature. It also makes no sense to slavishly follow the novel in the film. The really great director (with of course an able script writer beside him/her) will comment on the novel via the film, give an own perspective on it, or even a new interpretation. That is what makes films of classic novels interesting - and this, of course, should be combined with conveying something of the original spirit or atmosphere of the book.

In this first post, I have selected classical novel-based films from before 1925; in a second post films based on novels after 1925 will follow. The mini reviews below are listed in the order in which the original novels were published. I have kept as self-imposed rule that I would only have one book per author and one film per director per post (so as not to spam my post with favorites).

1. Choderlos De Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), filmed in 1989 by Miloš Forman as "Valmont." With Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly.
Bored aristocrats play a high-stakes game of passion and betrayal in France on the eve of the Revolution. 
Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been filmed several times, especially in recent decades - cynical manipulation of love seems to strike a responsive note with contemporary audiences. When we leave out versions transposed to modern times or exotic countries, we have two films that aim at historical veracity and that in their different ways are both true to the spirit of the novel: Dangerous Liaisons (1988) by Stephen Frears, with Glenn Close, John Malkovich en Michelle Pfeiffer; and Valmont (1989) by Miloš Forman (of Amadeus fame), with Annette Bening, Colin Firth en Meg Tilly. Although the Frears version is tight and claustrophobic, has great performances and gets somewhat higher ratings at various internet sites, I prefer Forman's version - it is more relaxed and even finds humor in the bleak story. It also has a better "18th century feel." The performances are as good as those of the Frears film, and I liked the fact that the actors are lesser known, which foregrounds the story and not the actors. In the Frears adaptation, the sex is all mind play, while in Forman's film it is more sensual and seems even pleasurable for those seduced. Due to its elaborate sets, costumes and location shooting in France, the Forman film was by far the most expensive of the two, but the result is fully worth it. Forman's greatest merit is that he has discovered this more lighthearted interpretation in the novel.

2. Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility (1811), filmed in 1995 by Ang Lee. With Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet & Hugh Grant.
When left almost penniless by the unexpected death of their father, two sisters of very different character - the one more practical and pragmatic (sense), the other with a romantic and passionate nature (sensibility) - have to get serious about playing the "marriage game." 
The today so popular novels of Jane Austen have been again and again filmed for TV by the BBC, but versions for the big screen are relatively rare. This cinematic production provides an interesting combination of an excellent English cast and scriptwriter (lead actress Emma Thompson in a double function) with a Chinese director from Taiwan, although only hired after the script was finished. It was Ang Lee's first venture outside purely Chinese subject matter, but as he said, he very well knew the repression of a feudal society as he grew up with one foot in it. Sense and Sensibility was the first novel Jane Austen published and due to the long illness of the second "emotional" sister, who cannot overcome her feelings of being jilted, it has less sparkle than her other books. Not so in the hands of Thompson and Lee, who bring out all the latent humor and have managed to create a very stylish and witty adaptation. Of course, there is a big wink over the heads of the characters at the modern viewer about all those musty, Regency-area conventions. By omitting several minor characters the story is more focused on the sisters, Elinor and Marianne, who are aptly filmed in such a way as to bring out their different characters: Marianne, the romantic, is often in the company of musical instruments, while the cool-headed and rational Elinor is shown in door frames, as she shuts off her emotions from others. The lesson has remained the same: in life we need a combination of both logic and feeling. But in the film it is the repressed Elinor who is most in need of reform, rather than her sister.

3. Honoré de Balzac: The Duchess of Langeais (1834), filmed in 2007 by Jacques Rivette as "Ne touchez pas la hache" ("Don't touch the ax"). With Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu.
A married aristocratic woman plays a cat-and-mouse game of love with a famous general, but ends up falling in love herself, too - in the end both become the victims of an obsessive, but impossible passion.
Balzac's short story is not as famous as his longer works like Le Père Goriot, and even in its short space Balzac goes off on a long rant about the for him deplorable weakness of the aristocracy which is only embarrassing to a modern audience - but all the same, this tale of a coquettish, married noblewoman (the Duchess Antoinette de Langeais) who catches a battered war hero in her nets (General Armand de Montriveau) and toys with his feelings in an extended game of thwarted seduction, is a penetrating psychological study of the contradictions of love. For the Duchess falls into her own net, too - but unfortunately, the would-be couple can never get their volatile emotions in sync with each other, and keep dancing around each other in a pas de deux of both love and hate. That the Duchess plays with fire is brought out in the title New Wave director Jacques Rivette has selected for the film: "Don't touch the ax" - a phrase also used in the novel - reminds one of the executioner's ax that cut off many aristocratic heads in the decades before the story takes place - and it is also a weapon that cuts back mercilessly when touched by a vain and coquettish woman. The general is after all a man of action, so he resorts to a rather theatrical abduction and the threat with a branding iron to try and get what he wants. Rivette has filmed the story in a minimalist, but interesting way: when people walk inside rooms, we hear the floor boards creak, and follow them without cuts from one room into the other; we also hear clocks tick and the fire crackle. There is none of the smooth polish of other period films - this is all about character. The acting - though superb - is also minimalist - but Balibar marvelously succeeds in bringing out Antoinette's suppressed and tormented feelings.

4. William Makepeace Thackeray: The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844), filmed in 1975 by Stanley Kubrick as "Barry Lyndon." With Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee & Hardy Krüger. 
Satirical picaresque tale about a fictional Irish adventurer and the position he secures for himself in the English aristocracy - and how he looses it again. 
Thackeray loved the 18th century and he wrote several historical novels placed in the Georgian period - even Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, which takes place in the early 19th century, has something of an 18th c. adventuress. The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is a picaresque tale told by an Irish rogue who is a rather unreliable narrator - part of the fun for the reader is pricking through his fabrications and exaggerations. This is unfilmable, but Stanley Kubrick has found a very interesting solution: he has a voice-over, different from the novel in that it is in the third person, but as the attentive viewer notices, also this is unreliable - there is a vast difference between the superficial moral conclusions of this narrator, and the more subtle events we watch on screen. In addition, Kubrick removed the gross humor and made a much more serious film - his Barry Lyndon is not a rogue or simple fortune hunter (only look at the earnest face of Ryan O'Neill in the first half of the film), but someone pushed around by circumstances he does not fully understand, let alone controls. In his youth, Barry Lyndon missed the proper guidance of a father and therefore in the second part of the film he strives to be a good father himself. Of course, Kubrick had to pair down the long story and he has made several other changes as well, improving the work as a film, for example, by focusing on dueling - Barry's father is killed in a duel while Barry still is a young boy, Barry has to flee Ireland after he (mistakenly) thinks he killed a man in a duel and his career ends with a crippling duel as well. The images are extremely beautiful - shot on location in Ireland, the U.K. and Germany, inside and outside many great mansions and palaces. Kubrick's landscapes remind one of Watteau and Gainsborough, the interiors of Hogarth. Kubrick did not want to use artificial lighting, but shot the interior scenes by candlelight, using special lenses and fast film stock. And then there is the excellent choice of classical music, above all Handel's Sarabande from the Keyboard Suite in D minor which takes on an increasingly ominous and funereal character. And finally, Kubrick was a perfectionist, using excellent character players also for the minor roles. This is a great film that finally is receiving the high evaluation it deserves.

5. Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857), filmed in 1991 by Claude Chabrol. With Isabelle Huppert, Jean-François Balmer & Christophe Malavoy. 
The story of a selfish and shallow woman's struggle to overcome a sense of alienation and boredom in her life. 
At first sight, Madame Bovary may seem easy to film - after all, Flaubert provides minute descriptions of the physical environment in which the story takes place. But in fact much of the novel exists in the voice of the author and in Emma's mind, all things which cannot so easily be dramatized - unless one is a director with the talent of French New Wave veteran Claude Chabrol. Starring the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, who has teamed up with this director also in other successful films, Chabrol's screenplay faithfully follows the novel, accelerating and braking where necessary. Huppert excels in playing silent, introverted types who burn with inner passion. As Emma Bovary, she is defiantly passive rather than coquettish or flighty. This is an original interpretation of the character of Emma Bovary by director and actress. As in the novel, the film's central focus is on Emma's boredom. Emma believes there is more to life than being the wife of a country doctor, and allows her shallow personality to be stirred by vain romantic longings. What she does not realize (and neither do people who are bored in our own society) is that her boredom does not have external reasons, but springs from the fact that there is so little to herself. The movie was shot on location near Rouen (where Flaubert also lived) and everything looks authentic, from country roads to cottages, coaches and costumes and even the knickknacks that decorate Emma's living room. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the novel. The film has sometimes been criticized as containing too much understatement, but that is fine with me as Flaubert also wrote in a cool, realistic and precise way - and towards the end, things do speed up. This is by far the best adaptation of Madame Bovary and also one that treats Flaubert with respect.

6. Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady (1881), filmed in 1996 by Jane Campion. With Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan.
A young American woman with an independent mind inherits a fortune from an English relative, but falls for a "gentleman confidence artist." Ensnared, she has to "affront her destiny." 
The novels of Henry James are extremely difficult to film, for tone and ambiguity are everything - there are many nuances in his work that simply have no visual or dramatic equivalent. That being said, Campion has done a fine job and added her own twist to The Portrait of a Lady, which she brings in a contemporary feminist interpretation. It gives us the protagonist Isabel (played admirably by Nicole Kidman) from a new angle. In James' novel, Isabel is one of those naive, 19th c. Americans who tumble innocently into the greedy snake pit of old Europe. Isabel is inspired by idealism, an idealism that blinds her to see reality, so that she sometimes makes the wrong choices. But she is also a feisty young woman who is fiercely independent. The reason she marries Osborne (who in the original is not a con-man, but a more ambiguous type) is that she sees him as an artist living on a higher plane and she sincerely believes she can help him with her fortune. She marries him out of idealism. For James, character was destiny. In the film, on the contrary, Isabel is depicted as a victim, rather than as a heroine gone astray. She is trapped in a manipulative and tyrannical relationship, looses her steadfast resolve and independence and changes into a passive and static victim. Osmond is depicted as a sort of Gothic villain (John Malkovich masterly plays him as someone truly frightening in a very creepy way) and Isabel's marriage to him seems rather masochism than idealism. In the film, Isabel's predicament is not the result anymore of her character, the way she is, but of society and a marriage system that entraps and then destroys her. In this way, Campion gives her own interpretation of The Portrait of a Lady, something she does in a daring and intelligent way. The result is an excellent film in all respects.

7. Guy De Maupassant: Le Masque, La Maison Tellier & La Modèle, (1881), filmed in 1952 by Max Ophuls as "Le Plaisir." With Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux & Simone Simon. 
Three stories by Guy de Maupassant about the theme of "pleasure."
The first story (The Mask) tells of a man who is so addicted to balls and women that he hides his aging face behind a mask - pleasure and youth. The opening sequence is an incredible tour de force of camera, following the swirling beat of a 19th c. ball - typical for Max Ophuls in whose camera movements there is always a visual musicality. But the dancer collapses and is carried home, where we meet his wife - without saying anything beyond what is in the story of De Maupassant, Ophuls makes us realize that behind each male ego in search of pleasure, there is a suffering woman. The third story (The Model) is about a painter who falls in love with his model, then dumps her when he grows tired of the affair. Desperate, she tries to commit suicide by jumping from a window and shatters her legs - pleasure and death. But this sacrifice enables her to force the painter into marrying her... The second story, The Maison Tellier, is the most important, taking up about half of the film. It is about pleasure and purity: how Madame Tellier takes her "girls" (prostitutes) to the country for attending her niece's communion. It starts with a virtuoso crane shot, inspecting the outside of a bordello and finally gliding into the Maison Tellier. The day trip in the countryside is beautifully filmed (Jean Gabin drives a cartload full of jolly whores, including Danielle Darrieux) and the church scene when all the prostitutes start to cry at the sight of the pure young girls is justly celebrated. Ophuls follows De Maupassant closely as the story line is concerned, but changes many details. For one thing, he looks with a gentle sense of humor at the prostitutes, while De Maupassant wrote in a cynical vein, describing the women as coarse and vulgar. But Ophuls is full of sympathy for other human beings, especially unhappy ones. His is a poetic and sumptuous treatment of the story, full of kindness and warmth.

8. Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure (1895), filmed in 1996 by Michael Winterbottom as "Jude." With Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet.
The bleak story of a stonemason who dreams of becoming a scholar, but is crushed by the British social system, fate and his own bad luck.
Michael Winterbottom has made a fast-moving and incisive adaptation of Hardy's last and bleakest novel. It is very different in tone from the usual English period drama (which often falls into what sometimes is derisively called the "heritage trap"), and also from that other well-know Hardy film, Tess by Roman Polanski, which gets mired down in Courbet-like landscapes and too much cow milking. Winterbottom has made a film of great emotional depth, with a story that is true to Hardy's vision. Although the film has the full trappings of a period piece, it is so focused on character that one tends to forget that - all the more so as the film has a very contemporary resonance. In other words, it is not reliant on aesthetic shots of horse carriages or steam locomotives - these are rather filmed from strange angles and hurtle down the screen. The wide screen is mostly filled with somber colors, giving a hint of the fact that things will end badly. No sugary elements have been added to soften this tale of struggle and tragedy - Jude is a strong man who keeps up his head, how often he is battered by fate, but his niece Sue (Kate Winslet), his great love, gradually sinks into the mud. Noble ambition and intellectual purity are finally thwarted by sexual passion and moralistic social tyranny. Some of the images are quite harsh and uncompromising, from a disemboweled pig to a rather bloody birthing scene; there are also some steamy sex scenes. So not a film for the faint-hearted, but those who persevere will come out of this dark tragedy feeling strangely uplifted.

9. Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1899), filmed in 1979 by Francis Ford Coppola as "Apocalypse Now." With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando & Robert Duvall. 
A long trek along a river to find and terminate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe in the jungle.
Apocalypse Now is an example of how far one can get from the original inspiration and still preserve a kernel of that book. The trek down the (unnamed) Congo River in Conrad's novella, to find a mad white colonist who has set himself up as a sort of god among a local tribe, has been replaced by the mission of Captain Willard, who during the Vietnam War is sent on a dangerous mission to assassinate a renegade colonel who has established himself as a tribal dictator. In both book and film the man is called "Kurtz." The result is a huge, sprawling film that tries to fuse 19th-century literature with 20th-century history. It was filmed over 16 months and with great difficulty in the Philippines, and at a huge budget. We get value for that money: take alone the iconic helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village where supposed enemies are hiding, under the strains of Wagner's Walkure music. These are real choppers and real explosions, and not some cheapish CGI images as we would probably find in a contemporary film. It is a rich, strange and great movie, that grows with each viewing. The journey up the Congo into the "heart of darkness" has turned into another river journey, into the hart of the Vietnam war. And as in Conrad, the film emphasizes the darkness within ourselves and our society. It is not the "ultimate Vietnam movie," but it shows us as all great war movies that war is hell and that young people are sacrificed for the obsessions of their elders. It also shows us what monsters human beings who are exposed to the absurdity of war can be turned into. The ending of the film has often been criticized (or rather the fact that there is no proper ending) but in fact, the film's final part is just as messy and inconclusive as endings of wars usually are.

10. Marcel Proust: Un amour de Swann (Swann in Love, 1913), filmed in 1983 by Volker Schlöndorff. With Jeremy Irons, Ornella Muti & Alain Delon.
The elegant Swann falls madly in love with the prostitute Odette and finally marries her, after which society closes it doors to them both.
Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu has been judged impossible to film, although there have been three attempts in the last three decades. Schlöndorff is the one director who fully succeeds, if only because he picks the only part of the huge (5,000 page) novel that can stand on its own and is also sometimes published separately: the story of the love of Schwann for the prostitute Odette, called Un amour de Swann. Volker Schlöndorff, in fact, has turned many literary classics into fine films: Young Torless (Musil), The Tin Drum (Grass), Coup de Grace (Yourcenar), Michael Kohlhaas (Kleist), The Ogre (Tournier), etc. In Schwann in Love, he does not keep strictly to the story, but rather opts to give a total impression of the decadent, late 19th c. atmosphere that Proust evokes. Charles Swann is a Jewish intellectual who has managed to overcome growing Antisemitism and moves in an elite social circle. Then one day he visits a prostitute, Odette, and is actually rather indifferent to her - until she stands him up, after which he becomes totally obsessed about the woman. He even develops a strange fetish: smelling the orchid in her bodice, something he needs to do every day. The rather vulgar woman, who lies and toys with his affection, becomes the most important person in the world to him. He grovels in the dust for her and throws his reputation at her feet. When he finally marries her, both are ostracized from polite society (it was considered alright to sleep with prostitutes, like in Edo-period Japan, but one should never fall in love. Bringing such ladies into society also had the added danger that the other "faithful husbands" one met might have been previous customers). Jeremy Irons is perfect as Charles Swann, pale, nervous, and feverish with passion. Ornella Muti is just as good with her maddening impassiveness. Schlöndorff has added one character from the later part of the novel: the homosexual Baron de Charlus (based by Proust on the historical Robert de Montesquiou), deliciously played against character by Alain Delon. The excellent cinematography is by Sven Nykvist and Hans Werner Henze wrote the superb music.

11. Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920), filmed in 1993 by Martin Scorcese. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, & Winona Ryder. 
Newland Archer is engaged to marry the beautiful but superficial May Welland - like him belonging to the creme-de-la-creme of New York's late 19th c. upper class society - but falls in love with her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is covered with the scandal of a failed marriage to a European aristocrat. But society around them closes ranks to wipe out their budding relationship...
Edith Wharton shows how true love is thwarted by 1870's New York society, which had its particular code of duty (as she knew very well, because she herself was a member of that society). She seldom allows her characters to state bluntly what they are thinking, but has them talk around it. The novel is noted for its attention to detail regarding the way of life of the upper class. The title is an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, which were in sharp contrast to its harsh, hidden machinations. Martin Scorcese justly emphasizes in the film how these upper class people are determined by their possessions and the food they eat. The Victorian rooms are jammed with furniture, paintings, lamps, plants, feathers, flowers, and the food, filmed from above on expensive porcelain, is gorgeous to the eye. But above all, Scorcese catches and enlarges with the media of film the implied eroticism in the unconsummated relation between Archer and Ellen Olenska - just caressing the folds of her gown or inhaling the scent of her parasol are moments full of incredible sensuality. Scorcese aptly demonstrates that the most powerful love stories are those that are never consummated, and the most sexy films those where the lovers keep their clothes on. Archer is intoxicated with Ellen Olenska because her unconventionality and wit shatter his preconceived ideas about women. She is real and mature, and has an intellectual life of her own. But silently thwarted by society, in the end rests only resignation - and sadness about something precious that has been irreparably lost. The performances are perfect: Michelle Pfeiffer shines with an inner light as Ellen Olenska, Winona Rider brings out the girlishness of May Welland but also her slyness, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer looks both handsome and intelligent.

12. Colette: Chéri (1920), filmed in 2009 by Stephen Frears. With Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend. 
A wealthy, aging courtesan (49) is asked to take the son (25) of a colleague under her wing and ends up falling in love with the much younger man. The affair drags on for several years, but when it is finally over, they both realize they have lost something important.
Colette's novels are considered difficult to film because they consist of emotions rather than events - there is not much that really happens. But this challenge has been met successfully by Stephen Frears and his screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Also the casting is excellent: Michelle Pfeiffer as the courtesan, Léa de Lonval, is a great mature beauty, while Rupert Friend as her lover whom she calls simply Chéri ("darling") looks suitably less than half her age. There is real chemistry between them. Of course, the relation which starts casually, cannot last. Chéri is the son of Léa's friend and colleague, who drops the good-looking boy on Léa to make a man of him. What starts out of ennui turns into love, and the relation lasts a full six years. But then it is time for Chéri to marry a rich, young woman. As a courtesan, Léa can not show her feelings directly, making this a story of insinuation and concealment. The separation makes them both miserable, as they keep being haunted by memories of each other. With great skill Pfeiffer brings out her repressed pain. She hides her heartache behind a mask of wordly nonchalance, but after finally separating from Chéri, she looks into her mirror and is angry that she was born two decades too early. A stylish film with gorgeous period atmosphere and brilliant performances, that unbelievably gets a rather low score on the IMBD and elsewhere.

13. E.M. Forster: A Passage to India (1924), filmed in 1984 by David Lean. With Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee & Peggy Ashcroft.
Cultural mistrust and false accusations doom a friendship in British colonial India between an Indian doctor, a young Englishwoman traveling with her future mother-in-law, and an English educator.
Lean has made a movie on a grand scale, showing us what life was like in colonial India, how the two communities of the Indians and English lived apart together. Lean is remarkably faithful to the novel - he certainly catches the atmosphere - but had to make one concession: in the novel it remains ambiguous what has happened between Adele and Dr Aziz in the Makabar Caves - was she raped as she asserts? In the film, we see the images and know that nothing of the sort happened. This changes the way we view the ensuing trial of Dr Aziz, which sets both communities up against each other - it makes the trial even more outrageous than in the novel and demonstrates how self-righteous the English were. Although this makes the film less mysterious and cryptic than the novel, it remains a wonderful tale, full of vivid characters and acted to near perfection.