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PARIS — A warm and winning chamber piece about two actors taking on The Misanthrope and trying not to strangle one another in the process, Philippe Le Guay’s Cycling With Moliere (Alceste a bicyclette) provides further proof of the Gallic writer-director’s talent for crafting finely acted, middlebrow dramedies with a heart. Featuring a scene-stealing performance from leading man Fabrice Luchini, who also starred in The Woman on the 6th Floor, the film should find similar success at home, with strong overseas possibilities if marketed to older art house audiences.
Based on an idea conceived by Luchini and Le Guay while they were making their last movie together, the film follows the travails of TV heartthrob Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), who travels to the rain-swept Ile de Ré in order to convince his longtime friend, the reclusive actor Serge Tanneur (Luchini), to star in his production of Molière’s infamous comedy of manners.
But Tanneur, who exiled himself to a run-down family manor after suffering a nervous breakdown three years prior, is as talented as he is thorny and, indeed, misanthropic, his antics echoing those of the play’s main character, Alceste — an outspoken critic of 17th century social mores, artistic conventions and emotional hypocrisy.
As much as Tanneur is eager to turn the part down, his love of Moliere, plus the persistent urging of Gauthier, convinces him to at least consider it, and the two embark on a week-long rehearsal session that turns sour every time one of their egos brims over (which, since they’re actors, happens whenever they meet up).
The various read-throughs of The Misanthrope are among the film’s strongest sequences, and Luchini, who’s known in France for his live recitals of works by literary powerhouses like Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, brings out both the beauty of Molière’s verses and the many ways in which they can be interpreted, revealing Alceste to be a character as complex as he is inspiring.
As the two thespians eventually find their rhythm together, switching roles between the Alceste part and that of Philinte, a kind-hearted conformist, it’s clear that their relationship is very much the one portrayed in the theater piece itself. This is further magnified by the addition of an Italian divorcee (Maya Sansa, Good Morning, Night) who eventually turns into a love interest, leading to a denouement that reproduces, in clever ways, the underlying comic pessimism of Moliere’s work.
Although the theatre bits are almost always engaging, with Wilson (Of Gods and Men) holding his own to the sometimes scenery-chewing Luchini, the film hits a few snags in its attempts at slapstick (bike riding into a swamp, drowning in a Jacuzzi), while certain minor characters, including a local porn star (Laure Bordesoules) yearning to be a real actress, are nothing more than light distractions.
Yet the personal and artistic squabbles between Gauthier and Tanneur are intriguing enough to streamline the action, which Le Guay directs in a polished, straightforward manner that favors the performances over everything else. Despite its theatrical core, the film also manages to make fine use of its multiple island settings — terrifically photographed by Jean-Claude Larrieu (The Secret Life of Words) — bringing Molière’s classic text into the stormy or sun-drenched landscapes of the present.
Production companies: Les Films des Tournelles, Pathe, Appaloosa Developpement, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Lambert Wilson, Maya Sansa, Laurie Bordesoules
Director: Philippe Le Guay
Screenwriters: Philippe Le Guay, based on an original idea by Fabrice Luchini and Philippe Le guay
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Director of photography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Françoise Dupertuis
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Costume designer: Elisabeth Tavernier
Editor: Monica Coleman
Sales Agent: Pathe International
No rating, 105 minutes
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