Sparks fly as two old friends rehearse Moliere’s Le Misanthrope, as Philippe Le Guay’s Cycling With Molière searches for honesty beneath the truth inside.
Cycling With Molière
Commedia dell’arte by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on an on original idea by Philippe Le Guay and Fabrice Luchini, it’s tempting to believe that the seeds for Cycling With Molière were sown on the set of Le Guay’s previous hit comedy Les Femmes du 6ième Étage. And yet his deconstruction of Molière’s most celebrated play Le Misanthrope couldn’t be further from the upstairs-downstairs lightheartedness of his previous film. Except perhaps for its title which it borrows (partially) from Yves Montand’s popular chanson À Bicyclette – a sunshiny song of childhood friendship and first love. But for the most part (and much like Molière’s satire on aristocratic politeness) it’s a much darker tussle between two old friends, as friendly façades and bitter walls come tumbling down.
Gauthier (Christophe Lambert) is a well-known actor, who, despite having given up the cinema for the well-paid lure of the prime-time soap opera, has a plan – to bring Molière’s Le Misanthrope to the Parisian stage, with himself in the starring role as Alceste, and with help from his old friend Serge (Fabrice Luchini). The only problem is, Serge has long given up acting, retiring to the affluent Île de Ré, living in a near-derelict cottage inherited from his uncle and killing time by painting blown-up stills from x-rated movies. But as Gauthier attempts to persuade Serge to walk the boards again, they rehearse – tossing a coin to see who will play the humanity-hating Alceste and who the unequivocal pessimist Philinte. But as Gauthier extends his stay, old jealousies are reignited. And with Italian divorcée Francesca caught between them, passions start to run impossibly high.
Adapting Molière for the big screen is no easy task – with its rhyming alexandrines and sheer wordiness, it doesn’t exactly adhere to the seventh art’s first maxim “Show, don’t tell.” But the French have a love for their Classics that extends beyond the minimalist cinematic trends of the now – reinventing 17th century verse with 21st century panache. Le Guay’s loose (or perhaps rather, partial) adaptation is modernised and reduced to the sparring dialogues between the two friends as they find each other again and rehearse. The take place in a kind of ever-changing stage set – minimalist, in a grey concrete yard, or pastoral, against a backdrop of fruit crates. But just as Serge and Gauthier swap roles, tossing a coin for Alceste and Philinte, so too do our expectations flip – as it becomes harder to pin down who best fits the role of embittered optimist who believes he can change people, and the cynical pessimist who no longer sees any reason to try.
In true French fashion though, in Philippe Le Guay’s Alceste à Bicyclette it’s an irredeemable case of “Cherchez la femme!” As the relationship between the two men simmers somewhere between neglected friendship, professional jealousy and personal difference (an alexandrine really should have all 14 syllables pronounced!), its uneasy equilibrium is finally upset when Serge starts to fall in love with Francesca, and when, in a moment of mid-divorce vulnerability, she sleeps with Gauthier. It’s an all-too-easy plot device to break the two men’s tempestuous stalemate once and for all, tipping Serge’s bitterness and jealousy over the edge, demanding he be the only one to play Alceste and dropping Gauthier in the merde at the same time with his girlfriend for his illicit romance.
With hugely enjoyable performances from Christophe Lambert and Fabrice Luchini, Cycling With Molière is an actor’s dream, combining both the elaborate, intricate style of the 17th century play with the free-flowing energy of modern cinema. There’s more than a nod to Truffaut as the threesome cycle country lanes, borrowing a New Wave lightness from Les Mistons and Jules Et Jim that balances out the heavy weight of Molière’s verse. But the final scene where Serge dons feathered hat, frock coat and britches is not only the most dashingly outrageous of the film, it’s also a brilliant coup – as Serge embraces his anachronous, backwaters existence and shrinks back into it. For, as Philippe Le Guay’s film cycles between roles and emotions, when the brakes finally come off, it’s not surprising that, in the end, someone falls off.
Cycling With Molière is released on 4th July 2014 in the UK