The Influence

Proust’s masterpiece of autofiction, In Search of Lost Time, is a constant literary companion and source of inspiration for Melbourne filmmaker Alena Lodkina. By Kate Holden.

Alena Lodkina

A grainy photograph of a man with a dark hair and a thick moustache matched with formal clothing and a red bowtie.
French novelist Marcel Proust, and screenwriter and director Alena Lodkina (below).
Credit: SPCOLLECTION / Alamy (above), Audrey Lam (below)

Alena Lodkina was born in Russia, where she watched films with her parents from an early age. She discovered Australia through cinema before migrating here at the age of 13. A short film, There Is No Such Thing as a Jellyfish, appeared in 2014, and her debut feature, Strange Colours (2017), took her to Lightning Ridge for a deeply beautiful fictional portrayal of the isolated community.

Her writing has appeared in journals, and her documentary short films at festivals around the world. Her new feature, Petrol – acclaimed in The New Yorker after showing at New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival this year – depicts a “haunted friendship” between two young women in Melbourne, the ingenue Eva and the sophisticate Mia. It opened in Australian cinemas this month.

Lodkina spoke to The Saturday Paper about the influence of Marcel Proust and his entrancing novel series, usually translated as In Search of Lost Time, written in seven volumes published between 1913 and 1927.

Tell me, was it easy to choose Proust?

I love literature. It’s something I completely immersed myself in [in] my 20s, and a great pleasure. As soon as I thought of literature I thought of Proust, because it is just such a monumental work and was an equally monumental experience for me.

The experience of reading Proust very much existed in a close parallel to the development of Petrol, so it really did feed the ideas of that film: but it is also an experience of a work of art that I can confidently say changed me as a person, as an artist … as a reader, as a thinker.

It had such a profound influence on me. And because it’s such a rich world, it led to many other things and different appreciations of other artists and writers. So it was easy to settle on Proust. It’s easy to talk about it for hours or days or a whole lifetime.

What brought you to Proust as a young woman?

I think he was in my orbit because so many writers that I admired read him. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just dabble.” I picked up the first volume, and then it just became a part of my life. But I think it took me five or so years to get through the whole thing. And that was nice as well, because it became a ritual: every year I’d read one or two volumes of In Search of Lost Time. And as a literary companion, I couldn’t think of anyone better, really.

There is this conception Proust is a joke – he’s associated with grand literature with a capital “L” – but the actual experience couldn’t be further from that. It’s not easy to summarise because it’s subtle and unusual and beguiling. It’s so warm and playful, it’s very romantic; he encompasses a lot of genres and tones. It’s really addictive. At times it’s a melodrama, at times it’s a thriller. It has crime, elements of Edgar Allan Poe and Dostoevsky; at other times it’s a comedy of manners and he makes jibes at just about everyone – society high and low. And at times it’s a political novel, and talks about the Dreyfus affair and World War I. It’s quite fun; it’s a fun book.

The scale, intimacy, immersion, Proust’s own immersion; it’s a spell he draws you into too. What did you take from his creation of the work?

Proust became a model for me, for how to create personal works of art. He’s talked about now in terms of autofiction, but he’s someone who maintains just the perfect balance of extreme intimacy and objectivity. The narrator closely resembles Proust but is not Proust, and we know Proust was a gay, Jewish man and his narrator is obsessed with women. The novel has this great insight into matrices of heterosexual love as well as gay romance. The way he hides his personal biography in the novel is really ingenious. He’s become such a model for me on how to do “I”. I’m interested in works feeling like they’re written or created from experience but at the same time have that kind of universal approach and texture. Proust is really the height of that.

I came across a quote when I was looking through the final volume: “An artist shall think of nothing but the truth which is before him.” This leads to the second part of what I admire: it’s a tour de force, a masterclass in observation and paying attention to the world. The fact that he honours everything from objects to customs and particular ways that people speak – their silly inflections, the mistakes they make in language, the jokes they make, the way they reflect on food or art of their time, or politics, and the way people are confused or don’t understand something – side by side with very eloquent characters and eloquent reflections on his time. You really get a sense of the world as it is, a world that is very imperfect, and to me that is just infinitely inspiring.

The outsider perspective: someone from the outside looking in, aspiring. The great trope of aspiration, which is a little bit in Petrol: someone from a lower-middle-class background aspires to enter high society, and his ticket is art and culture. That’s a very modern theme.

The way he romanticises high society and is increasingly disillusioned with it is also a great theme of the work. He was able to delve into the interior world and through it, understand the exterior world, and there’s a great honesty in that.

I get a strong sense of devotion to beauty in your films, and Proust is preoccupied with beauty…

I have a habit of pursuing aesthetics in my worlds, my cinematic worlds, but beauty is also a theme in my film. Part of Eva’s fascination with Mia is perceived beauty, and the beauty of a certain world: aesthetics, clothes, works of art and music, decadence. That is something that runs through the novels, this fascination in pursuit of beauty without ever being able to pinpoint what it is. Again, it links to aspiration and desire.

Proust is an icon of European literature; you’re of Russian heritage. Is this another point of attachment, through that Europhile tradition? I’ve seen your work compared to that of French directors such as Jacques Rivette.

Definitely, and it’s something that I grapple with, because I’ve been accused in my filmmaking of being over-intellectual. My work appeals to people who have a taste for “European cinema”. It’s hard to talk about in Australia because you do sound pretentious. That’s why I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to talk about Proust! I don’t care!”

So how close is the link between Petrol and Proust?

The theme of fascination, the theme of being fascinated with another person, and thus the world outside of oneself, is so beautifully expressed in Proust, and it was my humble attempt to express something about that. There are many things in Petrol directly drawn from Proust and his obsessions, but that is the most potent one: chasing the reality outside yourself, and that desire to connect with the world and the limit of oneself and one’s own understanding. The melancholy that comes with understanding that limit. That’s something I learnt in reading Proust. These are all aspects of a work I admire deeply, which I’m sure I will spend a lifetime trying to imitate, because it’s just such an achievement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2023 as "Alena Lodkina".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription