A group of people has been regularly meeting in the same Buenos Aires cafe for a book club. Two things make this notable: They have been doing it for almost 20 years, and they have only ever discussed the same book. As suggested by the title of a new documentary about the group, Le Temps Perdu, that book is Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. What have these people, who started this practice in middle age and are now elderly, gained from it? What new can one glean from meticulously going over the same work again and again on such a timescale? These are the questions that intrigue director María Alvarez, and she approaches them through almost undiluted observation.
The film essentially never leaves the cafe and follows a lulling rhythm that perhaps can approximate the comfortable routine its subjects have fallen into. They read passages of Proust, often at length, and then discuss their thoughts on them — their opinions on the characters, interpretations of the themes, everything you’d expect of a book club. It’s a seemingly mundane conceit, and at first glance a hard ask for 100 minutes of anyone’s time. But the club’s extraordinary familiarity with the text facilitates a much different understanding. They have gone beyond being mere fans or memorizers into forming an intimate link with the novel, and by extension with each other within this recurrent shared experience they’ve established amongst themselves. They speak of the characters as if they are old friends — and since they’ve spent decades rereading, they could easily have a closer and more in-depth understanding of these fictional beings than many people might have of real humans.
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There’s easily a version of this film that, true to the epic sprawl of the book around which it is centered, makes even greater use of duration, stretching out to two or three or more times its current, more normative length. Such an approach could do even more to immerse the viewer in the same feeling these lit lovers have cultivated for themselves, and yet it would be just a taste of the kind of experience they’ve built over such a long time. As it is, Alvarez has crafted more of a visit with them, as if the viewer is a polite guest for the proceedings rather than a participant. But the film still conveys a potent sense that, through their practiced repetition and recitation, these friends truly have developed a deeper bond with a text that’s so widely acclaimed and broadly familiar that it’s threatened with seeming passé. At first, simply watching people read In Search of Lost Time might seem dull; by the end, you’ll be itching to read or reread it yourself.
Le Temps Perdu forms the middle installment of Alvarez’s documentary trilogy that began with 2017’s The Cinephiles, about various retired Hispanophone women who go to movie theaters daily, and concluded with 2021’s Near and Dear, about elderly twin sisters remembering their youths as a piano-playing duo. Each movie examines the same themes of how people’s interaction with art changes with the passing of time, through the lenses of different art forms — cinema, music, and here literature — and the unique methods of appreciation that come with each. It’s a quiet but endearing experience, and offers an encouraging portrait of how one can continue to deepen one’s relationship to art even late in life.
Le Temps Perdu opens at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Manhattan) August 12.