Following 2017’s “Las Cinéphilas,” about retired women who go to the cinema every day, and this year’s “Le Temps Perdu,” which just had its world premiere in IDFA’s feature-length documentary competition, Argentinian director Maria Alvarez is already developing the third part of her trilogy focusing on elderly people.
Comparing her next project to the acclaimed 1975 Maysles brothers documentary “Grey Gardens”—a study of Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric aunt, who lived a secluded life with her daughter in a decaying New York mansion—Alvarez calls it an intimate affair that really explores what it means to have a sister. “One of them wanted to be an actress, not a pianist, but they compromised, trying to figure out how to stay together. This kind of relationship can really mold who you are.”
As a director, Alvarez is open to chance and coincidence—indeed, it was one of the subjects of “ Las Cinéphilas” who introduced her to the book club shown in “Le Temps Perdu,” which has been meeting in a small bar since 2001 to read Marcel Proust’s epic novel “In Search of Lost Time.” “When she told me about it, I went: ‘It has nothing to do with cinema, but let’s take a look.’” She was hooked straight away. “Everything they said during that first meeting ended up in the film,” she recalls. “They talked about the passing of time and I was transfixed by it. They didn’t pay any attention to the camera and I learned not to interfere. I just wanted to continue filming them.”
Their passion for Proust’s book was so infectious that Alvarez started to read it too, and she marvels at the way these people can quote entire excerpts by heart and gossip about Proust’s characters as if they were their friends. But unlike the majority of book clubs, they aren’t in any hurry to move on to something new—after 20 years, they still dismiss any suggestions that they should try something else. “They don’t want to read another book!” laughs the director.
“When they talk about the death of Albertine [who appears in several volumes of the seven-part novel], they are deeply moved. One of them says: ‘I feel like I know her, and Proust just killed her off!’ Of the novel’s 3,000 pages maybe seven make their way into the film. There are parts that are just boring, and they actually admit it, but that’s what Proust does. His novels aren’t normal and the last sentence brings you back to the very beginning. It’s like a circle of life.”
Alvarez delighted in showing a community that has formed over the years, with its members finding refuge in their well-established routine. But with the pandemic putting a stop to their meetings something else changed as well, as they had to say goodbye to their favorite bar.
“It doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “They started to look for another place, but it’s not easy—they don’t really order anything and they sit there for hours. They were still casting for locations when the pandemic started. It was shocking to finish the film and then the bar is gone and they are not meeting. This title, [which translates as] ‘Lost Time,’ took on a whole different meaning.”
“But then,” she adds, “that’s also something I wanted to reflect on in the film: the concept of time. These people, they have experienced so much. They are well into their eighties, they can hardly walk, but this book is a place to return to. They say that every time you read it, you are different, so the book is different as well. You know that Proust is there, waiting. He helps you see the world in a different way.”
That feeling rubbed off, she thinks. “Every time I sat down to edit the film I felt joy, peace, I felt reconnected to art, literature and myself. I laughed a lot, hoping that some of it will reach the viewers as well. Filming them was a gift. After making these films, I think that no matter if you have a family, your life will change when you get to their age. You have to keep your curiosity alive—it’s an exercise. They are all very curious, that’s why they participated in the film. They said, ‘Why not? Let’s try something new at 80!’”