Sunday, April 20, 2014

Life imitates art, quite beautifully, in Philippe Le Guay's enchanting BICYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE

French filmmaker Philippe Le Guay has had quite an interesting career, working successfully in various genres -- from his most recent hit, the nostalgic and socially-conscious rom-com The Women on the 6th Floor to his earlier and very dark movie about work and family, Nightshift (Trois Huit) and a very interesting and barbed look at how the French bourgeoisie lived back in 2003, The Cost of Living. All told, he's directed eleven films (theatrical and television) and written twenty-two. Now comes one of his best: BICYCLING WITH MOLIÈRE, the charming, classy tale of a classic piece of French literature attempting to be brought to exhilarating life by a pair of France's finest actors (Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson) -- who happen to be portraying a pair of France's finest actors.

M. Le Guay, shown at left, came up with the idea for this film along with M. Luchini (the two have collaborated several times), who is said to be an expert on the great playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name, Molière. Despite his great gift for comedy and farce, M. Luchini would seem to possess an intelligence both wide-ranging and deep, all of which is put to use by the actor and M. Le Guay in this new film. In it, Luchini plays Serge Tanneur (below, left), a well-respected actor who has given up his profession due to its pettiness and nastiness of the people who surrounded him. Into his now quiet life comes M. Wilson, as Gauthier Valence (below, right), another successful actor who currently is the hot TV star in what sounds and looks like a soapy series about a cosmetic surgeons who always seems to be saving lives. Gautheir wants to get back to his theatrical roots and so is set on having Serge join him in a new production of Molière's The Misanthrope.

But who will play Alceste, the meaty title role of the play? Gauthier wants it for himself, but Serge says no.  If he is to return to the stage, he must play Alceste. Well, maybe the two actors could switch roles periodically, giving both the chance to shine? Serge insists on a few days of rehearsal before giving his answer, and so the two begin to rehearse, as well as spend a lot of time together in the little seaside town where Serge dwells.

There they meet Francesca (Maya Sansa, above), an Italian divorcee who is initially angry at them and the world around her but then quickly (a tad too quickly, perhaps) warms up to our two chums.

The meat of the movie charts this growing relationship between the men, and theirs with both the play at hand and with this new woman, and it gives us a raft of small moments of jealousy and envy, as well as others that bring to the fore the actor's skill with this playwright and the playwright's great skill with words. Molière lovers will kvell. (Yours truly once played Philinte in a college production of this play, and even though I was far too young and green to appreciate even half of its genius, this opened the door to my enduring love for the playwright.)

Midway, there's a fine scene in which a young actress, keen to continue making porno films, takes a mother-induced meeting with our classic actors and reads a speech from the play. What begins as cringe-inducing, slowly turns into something lovely, as the character (and actress: newcomer Laurie Bordesoules, below) warms to the words.

The movie should also give lovers of The Misanthrope a field day, for it finds within the characters of the two men, and the woman, plenty of similar characteristics to those of Alceste, Philinte and Célimène and the rest of the play's cast of characters. In fact, there is one brilliant scene near the finale in which Serge looks over the entire galaxy of people involved in the upcoming production and sees... well, you'll see. This is a splendid few moments brought to fine life by Le Guay, Luchni and the rest of the cast.

If you know Luchini's work -- from Claire's Knee onward, you'll know that there is damn little he can't do. His work here is sterling; the man just gets better and better with age. M. Wilson, below, looks fabulously sexy (as he so often does) but here this is cleverly combined with that ever-so-slightly self-satisfied "star" quality that successful actors sometimes radiate.

Ms Sansa, below, about to be seen here in the USA in a terrific role in Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty, makes a lovely foil for our guys. Though it is pretty clear that the whole story was designed to explore actors, acting and Molière, the three leads do yeoman work at turning their "characters" into as close to full-blooded people as possible.

Le Guay might have spared us two falls off bikes and into the canal (though it probably seemed important that this happen to both Gauthier and Serge). Overall, though, the movie is one near-constant joy to see and hear, as it gives one of the world' great playwrights and his work yet another choice moment in the sun.

From Strand Releasing and running 104 minutes, Bicycling with Molière, gets its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, April 23, in New York City at Film Forum. In Los Angeles, look for the film at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 on May 2, and at Laemmle's Town Center on May 9. Elsewhere? Let's hope. Otherwise, watch for it eventually on DVD and maybe Netflix streaming.

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