Visconti, Berger & Proust
Visconti planned for several of his cult actors for both lead and supporting roles: Silvana Mangano was to play the elegant and witty Duchesse de Guermantes, Alain Delon or Dustin Hoffman the Narrator-Protagonist Marcel, and Helmut Berger Baron Charlus’s homossexual protégé Charlie Morel. For Charlus himself, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando were in the running (Visconti himself favoured Brando, but was told by Paramount that american actor was in decline and unfit for a project of this scale and prestige). Simone Signoret or Annie Girardot were to incarnate the malicious Mme Verdurin, Marie Bell the actress La Berma, and Dirk Bogarde, Visconti’s star from Morte a Venezia, the jewish Charles Swann. Brigitte Bardot, who had personally requested a role in the movie, was to be his wife, the former courtesan Odette de Crecy. There were even rumours that Greta Garbo, who have retired from the public life decades ago, would make a comeback as the Queen of Naples who, in one brief but stunning appearence from La Prisonnière, comes to the rescue of her humiliated cousin Charlus. Finally, Albertine, Marcel’s enigmatic mistress, was to be played by Charlotte Rampling, who had worked with Visconti in La Caduta Degli Dei, or by an unprofessional young actress yet to be identified.
With its lenght of almost four hours, a monumental cast with hundreds of extras, and locations whose splendour was to surpass even that of earlier Visconti movies like Il Gattopardo and Morte a Venezia, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu promised to be sumptuous, but also very expensive for the time. The financing of such an ambitious, aninhibitedly elitist and uncommercial movie, unsurprisingly, was causing considerable problems. When the final budget turned out to be an astronomical five billion lire, the producer had to ask Visconti to postpone shooting for four months to seek further sponsorship. Infuriated by the delay and pushed by his new protégé and favourite Helmut Berger, Visconti decided to start work on his monumental Ludwig, with Berger in the role of the Bavarian fairy king, and to return to the Recherche after this cinematic intermezzo. Conviced that he had let her down, and infuriated in turn, the producer initiated a law suit against Visconti and began looking for other potencial directors. Time was pressing: her film rights, initially bought for nine and half years, would expire in only few years’ time whilst, at the same time, the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth in 1971, when she had initially intended to lauch the Proust movie, was getting further and further out of sight. In july of 1972, after finishing the last scenes for Ludwig, Visconti suffered a stroke which left him paralysed on one side. Henceforth, any resumption of the Proust project became inconceivable in the foreseeable future. Visconti’s own ominous prophecy that A la Recherche du Temps Perdu would his last film became true: the Proust project is the director’s unfinished testament.
*Proust at the Movies – Martine Beugnet/Marion Schmid, 2004