The idea of filming ''Remembrance of Things Past'' has been kicking around the movie world for years. Joseph Losey dreamed of directing such a picture. Harold Pinter wrote a ''Proust Screenplay'' that has never been produced.
Now some pages of Proust's masterpiece have actually reached the screen. The director is Volker Schlondorff, who has tackled such authors as Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll in past years. The screenplay (in French) is by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Marie-Helene Estienne. Other contributors include cinematographer Sven Nykvist, best known for his crisp work with Ingmar Bergman, and composer Hans-Werner Henze, whose music provides an anxious counterpoint to the action.
Their carefully shaped ''Swann in Love'' translates into film one major plotline from the novel, recounting the obsessive love affair of well-heeled Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette. (The movie's French title, ''Un Amour de Swann,'' is Proust's title for the first volume of ''Remembrance,'' known as ''Swann's Way'' in English-language translations.)
Pinter rejected as ''wrong'' the notion of filming just one section of Proust's work, preferring to crystallize the whole thing through a zigzag series of evocative scenes. Mr. Schlondorff's approach is more conservative, yet Proustian for all that. Isolating a few characters and events, he dwells on gestures and details with an unhurried care that would surely have pleased the novelist.
The result is a faithful echo, though only an echo, of the ''Swann's Way'' passages that inspired it. Especially in the first half of ''Remembrance'' one reads less for story or even character development than for the dense luxury of the prose itself. Schlondorff can't reproduce the book's rich language, but he can flood the screen with sharply observed nuances of time, place, and behavior. Only in moments of overt sexual activity (especially a bluntly shot brothel scene) does the film veer sharply from Proust's tone: The novel has its share of raunchy subject matter, but the author's descriptive style is never as clinical as Schlondorff's camera.
The performances, by an international cast, range from good to excellent. Jeremy Irons is a fine Swann, vividly projecting the character's uneasy blend of fastidiousness and compulsive sexuality. Ornella Muti has the manner, if not all the niceties, of the deceptively complicated Odette. Alain Delon plays the Baron de Charlus with less perversity than you might expect, but gives him an aggressive charm that's all the more ironic if one knows how drearily this character ends up in Volume 7 of the novel. Fanny Ardant and Marie-Christine Barrault vigorously portray two of Swann's society friends.
Viewers familiar with Proust may snort at the very idea of a ''Swann'' movie lacking such a crucial character as the narrator, who breathes through every word and scene of the novel. Yet this painstaking film must be counted a solid success on its own terms, and a clear sign that ''Remembrance'' can be motion-picturized as readily (if incompletely) as other hard books like ''Finnegans Wake'' and ''Under the Volcano,'' which have preceded it. Perhaps a full movie version, such as Pinter's, will someday be realized. For now, ''Swann in Love'' is an impressive first step in that direction. And if it's well-enough received for a sequel to be feasible, ''Within a Budding Grove'' - with its delicious summery atmospheres - is just waiting to be asked. 'Full Moon in Paris'
Eric Rohmer thrives on precision. His films are made of subtleties - wry glimpses of character and personality that would pass unnoticed if not for the sly alertness of his camera.
''Full Moon in Paris'' is the fourth entry in his latest series, ''Comedies and Proverbs.'' The proverb that opens the tale sets a fine tone of slightly veiled absurdity: ''He who has two women loses his soul; he who has two houses loses his mind.''
The heroine is a young woman with a problem. She craves affection, companionship, togetherness. Yet she has never been on her own in the world, and wonders what she might be missing. After some quirky reasoning, she hits on the idea of keeping two apartments - one shared with her devoted boyfriend, the other an island of lone serenity.
It doesn't work, and therein lies Rohmer's message. (He's still a moralizer, though his series of ''Moral Tales'' ended years ago.) Try as she might, our heroine can't quite jump the hurdles posed by her own nature, by the zealous young men around her, and by Rohmer's conviction that life and love are always knottier than they have a right to be.
Like other Rohmer films, ''Full Moon in Paris'' has superbly designed moments. Few directors could so deftly capture the tone of a man-woman relationship by the positions of their hands - for an instant - as one passes a chair to the other. There is also an excellent performance by Fabrice Luchini (the star of Rohmer's underrated ''Perceval le Gallois'') and a good one by Pascale Ogier as the undecided protagonist.
Yet this serious comedy never rises to the heights of earlier entries in the current Rohmer series. The plot is too slim to sustain the many comings and goings of the characters, and the frequent ironies never sparkle as brightly as the director clearly means them to. The screenplay is a bit too long, the settings a bit too bland, the mood a bit too tenuous. In all, it's a near miss by a filmmaker who often hits the mark. 'Utu'
Australia has established itself as a world film center in recent years, and New Zealand is close behind. The latest export from the latter is the strongest yet: a turbulent epic called ''Utu,'' focusing on historical violence between black aborigines and white colonialists.
The story takes place in the late 19th century. Europeans have grabbed large amounts of land from the natives, and some tribes have joined the invaders against other groups of their own people. Te Wheke, a Maori who scouts for the British, finds that the people of his own village - while friendly to Europeans - have been senselessly wiped out. Something snaps in his mind, his heart, his conscience. He raises his rifle and pledges himself to a bloody one-man revolution.
The situation strongly recalls a much-praised Australian drama, ''The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'' by Fred Schepisi. ''Utu'' is a better film, though, because its motivations are less arbitrary and its historical dynamics more compellingly spelled out. Te Wheke is no sudden slaughterer goaded only by a murderous grudge. He's a figure both horrible and sympathetic, as grimly complex as the social and racial forces that swirl around him. Capable of the most awful violence, he can also chuckle over a chanced-upon copy of ''Macbeth'' and imitate its climax in his next campaign against the enemy. Indeed, he is a sort of Macbeth, a self-made king reduced to staving off ruin with a makeshift reign of terror.
Geoff Murphy, the director of ''Utu,'' doesn't always keep his material under strict control. There's a drift toward ''poetic'' photography - swirling mists and so forth - and when Te Wheke looms over a helpless white woman the images come dangerously close to nasty old stereotypes of malign black sexuality. But there are stunning shots, too, and the drama keeps its momentum despite the picture's arty flashback structure. ''Utu'' is an encouraging step forward in New Zealand cinema. 'Margaret Mead Film Festival
In the past eight years, the Margaret Mead Film Festival has become a solid institution at the American Museum of Natural History. Dedicated to the late anthropologist, it presents documentary studies of people and customs all over the world. This year's edition, Sept. 17-20, will feature about 40 films. According to a museum spokesman, some 15,000 people can be expected to attend.
That's a lot of viewers for a program of ''educational'' fare, and it points up a fact I discovered long ago: Documentaries aren't only instructive, they can also be highly entertaining when artfully made. To see if my thesis holds up for the 1984 Mead Festival, I previewed some of its wares and found the answer to be a strong yes.
Take the movie called ''Small Happiness: Women of a Chinese Village,'' directed by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton. The subject matter may seem exotic to Westerners - it's about women's lives in a rural village 400 miles from Peking - and yet it's as relevant as the latest debate about birth control, abortion, and female rights, all of which are important topics in the film. For color, there's dazzling footage of a peasant wedding. And for humor, there's a true-life anecdote - about an old man who refused to get out of bed until his son agreed to marry - that could be the scenario for a Neil Simon farce.
Less well-focused but also involving is ''The South-East Nuba,'' filmed for a BBC series called ''Worlds Apart.'' The subject is a tribal group in the Sudan whose flamboyant art, body decorations, and nudity attracted the attention of German photographer (and former Nazi filmmaker) Leni Riefenstahl - who published a book on the Nuba, whereupon tourists flooded in and the Sudanese government decided to ''civilize'' the area. Directed by Chris Curling, the film attempts to regain perspective on the Nuba and celebrate the essential innocence (perhaps lost now) of their culture.
Other festival offerings come from places like Guyana, Australia, and Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. The more successful films may then make their way to other festivals or TV dates.