For a Frenchman, comparing Proust–author of a series of seven books called A la recherche du temps perdu–and Christopher Nolan, director of popular movies such as Inception or Interstellar, could be as outrageous as dissolving a croissant in a cup of coffee. But, whether or not Proust was an inspiration for Nolan, the treatment of time in their respective works links the two artists. Not far from Dante’s hell, time could be seen as three concentric circles that the characters have to walk through to get to the bottom of things.
First circle: Losing time.
This signification of time is linked to memories, and the inability for one to connect them and find any significance. In Memento, the main character suffers from a recurring loss of memory. He needs to write on little sheets of paper what he just did, why and most importantly, who he can trust, to pursue his search of the criminal who raped and killed his wife.
Memories are just as treacherous in Marcel’s life, and, though he tries to lean on them just as Leonard Shelby does in Memento, he is constantly misled. For instance, when Marcel arrives, in Le temps retrouvé, at a party, he’s bewildered to see how the very people he used to know have changed and aged. He tends to believe that he’s tricked into some game, and that all the guests wear masks. In all la Recherche, things tend to conceal their true meaning behind false appearances. It’s only when the narrator compares a church with a brioche, or the glistening rooftops of Paris with the grey feathers of the most well known pigeons, that he gets closer to the concealed meanings.
Second circle: Wasting time.
Time is a paradox that only few are able to understand. Inception is all about that. In this movie about the life of Dominic Cobb, expert into entering other people’s dreams. Not only is Arthur an architect of paradoxes (see “the paradox of stairs”, inspired by the Penrose stairs [image]), but time in itself is paradoxical ; the last two pieces of music from Hans Zimmer are called “Paradox” and “Time”. The very paradoxes are linked to the confrontation between subjective time and objective time. When the so-called Mr Charles (Cobb pretending to be someone else, a guard to protect the dreamer) explains to Robert Fisher, the dreamer, how paradoxical the shifting weather and everything around him is the whole dream is on the edge of collapsing. Fisher indeed is close to discovering that the time dimension he believes to be in is not real. But Mr Charles is able to help him restore the whole meaning of time, and therefore preserve the deceiving environment.
Everything is relative, and the narrator’s subjectivity, which divided the world in so many distinctive places, vanishes when faced with dull reality.
Marcel is confronted by these situations many a time. All it takes is train ride (which is also a keyword for Nolan’s Inception to find a way to come back to reality) for time to get away from him. When he happens to fall asleep between two or more stations, he’s unable to link the pre and post-nap worlds. Without any temporal leads, the whole world is made of places impossible to connect . As evocative as a single scene can be, time works in a proustian perspective as a framework, close to the cinématographe mechanism invented a few years earlier. The landscapes evolve as the train passes by, and the objects tend to change colours, aspects and let the viewer close to catch a glimpse of the infinity of shapes it can embody. There, subjective time is once again confronted by objective time. Whereas Marcel could be able to reach every point of the planet thanks to the new technologies (airplanes, trains) that were in the process of being invented, this way of knowledge is always deceptive.
When, by chance, Marcel does not fall asleep during one of his train trips, he’s completely disappointed to find out that the places he believed to be belonging to different worlds are actually one and only universe. Everything is relative, and the narrator’s subjectivity, which divided the world in so many distinctive places, vanishes when faced with dull reality.
Third circle: Finding the time.
This is the only way for the main character in Nolan’s Interstellar, and La recherche’s narrator to reach the true essence of time. In the books, the narrator is first tired by the many unproductive efforts to become the writer he always meant to be, then overcome with doubts about literature as a whole and the very idea of finding something worth it beyond the mere amusements of the bourgeois society. And it’s precisely when he least expects it, just before the masquerade, that, by chance, he trips in the street. That very movement reminds him of another time of his life, the same way he remembers from time to time the taste of the famous madeleine. Not only does this bring him back to his childhood, but the abolition of time between these two different moments of his life has the very opposite effect mentioned earlier.
It’s one’s ability to master it and link one’s various experiences in a key moment, to discover a truth hidden all along, that matters.
The colours (bleu azur), the odours (tea), the noises (a fallen spoon), everything conspires to create metaphor in time. Beyond the maze of the different moments of his life, his key experiences mingled together bring him the very feeling of time, not as a framework of life, but as a possibility to live the same thing over and over, without any memorization effort. Filled with joy, Marcel finally overcomes the paradox of objective time through an unwilling comparison, free of parasite thoughts, purified.
The superposition of the same key moment in one’s life to solve lifelong problems is a main theme of Interstellar as well. The movie deals with humanity’s last hope of escaping a dying Earth and discovering other inhabitable planets When Cooper falls into a black hole, and therefore in a sort of 5th dimension where time is not a long framework anymore, but a place where he can evolve, he find himself back to the place he was with his daughter at the beginning of the movie. Through a code word (transmitted thanks to a watch), he’s able to change the past. But it’s also at this very moment that he gets to understand that time in itself is not the important dimension. It’s one’s ability to master it and link one’s various experiences in a key moment, to discover a truth hidden all along, that matters.