14 July 2014

Philippe Le Guay’s ‘Alceste à bicyclette’

(This film seems to have two English titles so I’m using the French original in the title of this post) 

Written by Le Guay and  Fabrice Luchini (In the House), who has one of the leading parts, this is an amusing “play within a film”, set on the Ile de Ré in SW France (subject of a post here last year), deserted but still photogenic in late winter/early spring. Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson) has achieved popular success playing the brain surgeon star of a French TV medical soap. Now he is hankering to make his mark in serious theatre (think Comédie-Française) and a route to this would be performing in Molière’s Le Misanthrope playing opposite his old friend Serge Tanneur (Luchini). But Tanneur had turned his back on the stage some time ago and now  lives as a recluse on the Ile. Valence’s tempting and novel proposal is that the two men alternate as Molière’s Alceste and Philinte, one critical and misanthropic, the other sociable and conforming. The parallels and contrasts with their own personalities are obvious and there is a distinct possibility that Tanneur is playing Valence along when he asks him to spend four days on the Ile reading their parts through. There are various encounters and complications which make the film less of a dry two-hander than it might at first seem.

Kate Muir in The Times gave Le Guay’s film 4* and commented:
Bicycling with Molière is a droll, intellectual delight, and probably one for Francophiles who have at least a vague knowledge of Molière’s play The Misanthrope.
and anyone who enjoys the Ile de Ré, of course.  I like to think I’m a Francophile, so I took her advice and tried to learn something about The Misanthrope before I saw the film, hence the few following notes which might help another ignorant soul.

Molière was the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673, famous in his own time as an actor and playwright and subsequently regarded as one of the greatest French literary figures. Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux (The Misanthrope or The Cantankerous Lover) was first performed in 1666, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. As well as constructing Versailles, Louis patronised the arts, sponsoring and protecting writers such as Racine and Molière. The latter’s plays were unpopular with elements within the court and with the church, not least because of his satirical views of high society and pessimistic view of human nature.

There is a description of Le Misanthrope on Wikipedia, but for the purposes of enjoying the film, it probably is enough to be aware that: Alceste is the protagonist and "misanthrope" of the title. He is quick to criticize the flaws of everyone around him, including himself. Philinte is Alceste's foil, a man who recognizes the importance of occasionally veiling one's true opinions. Célimène is a young woman who is courted by Alceste although he disapproves of her behaviour. Spurned by her and having fallen out with others, Alceste decides to exile himself from society, and the play ends with Philinte and his fiancée setting off to persuade Alceste to return.

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