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Cycling with Moliere PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
29 07 2014

Image Directed by Philippe le Guay

You might think, mightn't you, that a film in French, of which a good percentage of the script is made up seventeenth century rhyming verse, is going to be a bit of a dour plod for an English audience, even a Francophile, art-house loving one. Not a bit of it. Cycling with Molière is an unexpected pleasure, an amusing view of the shifting dynamics of a relationship, light, but with delicious glimpses of darkness mixed in with the social comedy, led by two superb performances by two of France's leading actors.

Gauthier (Lambert Wilson), a successful stage actor who has made fame and fortune as a swoon-worthy doctor in a hospital soap, visits old colleague and eminent classical actor Serge (Fabrice Luchini - also the film's screenwriter), who has abandoned acting to live a reclusive life in a seaside hideaway. Gauthier has a bright idea that may provide himself with a chance to tread the boards in legitimate theatre again, thereby upgrading his classical cred, and bring the older actor back to the stage. He proposes a production of Moliere's Le Misanthrope, a play that's to all intents a two-hander between Alceste, a pessimist who hates mankind, and the more open-hearted Philinte, who makes compromises and allowances for human frailties. Roles seemingly made for the two of them, except that the twist will be that they will alternate the parts (much as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tommy Lee Miller did recently onstage in Frankenstein). Serge is grouchily unenthusiastic, but agrees to give Gauthier five days of read-through to decide. Off they go with those galloping Alexandrines, de de  dee de de dee... archaic  language and abstract ideas, feeling their way into the roles, with Gauthier mostly deferring to the older and more classical Serge, who's a stickler for accuracy and authenticity, particularly picking him up on his constant slip of ‘unspeakable' (indicible) for ‘frightful' (effroyable), which becomes a little tic between them. 
Many in French audiences will have ‘done' the play in school so it will be familiar to them- for us there's pleasure just from the unfamiliar, pounding, sound of it as well from watching actors acting actors discussing acting. The Ile de Ré, a flat island off the coast of Aquitaine, all shades of pale with its modest sand-coloured villages, enormously empty beaches, windswept canal-side cycle tracks and faded out-of-season cafes, where everyone rides bikes -a great leveller - is the perfect setting, a flat watercolour background of normality for the rich and textured verse and light and shade of close-ups of the actors going about their readings.   A third character is drawn into their circle in the person of Francesca, an Italian neighbour going through the throes of divorce (Maya Sansa), previously dismissed by Serge as moody and unfriendly, with whom they form that most beloved of French film situations, a mènage à trois, (only in this case, apparently, platonic), and indulge in another favourite activity, the cooking and enjoying of food. Life is simple, pleasant, their friendship restored and the project, it seems, secured, as Fabrice Luchini's remarkable face unfreezes from grumpy old man mode to boyish rabbitty grin as he is beguiled by the activity of acting and engagement with life again.   All the more alarming then when that smiley mouth purses up into a narrow line, and le misanthrope returns.  Effroyable indeed!
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, July 2014
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