Home Video Hovel: Bicycling with Moliere, by Aaron Pinkston
A successful actor with a hot television show (something like a hunkier House M.D. who saves people during a variety of natural disasters), Gauthier Valence decides to leave Paris in order to find his roots. So, he visits a small resort town near the France-Italy border to convince an old colleague to co-star in a revival of the great Molière comedy of manners The Misanthrope. The problem, though, is that Serge Tanneur has long retired from acting, becoming a bit of a recluse who fusses over home repairs more than anything else these days. Still, Serge is open to the idea as long as he is able to play the show’s meatiest role, Alceste, which, of course, was Gauthier’s desire. The two are quickly able to strike a deal by rotating the roles of Alceste and Philinte, another critical role but without the star power. Over the course of Philippe Le Guay’s Bicycling with Molière, Gauthier and Serge reacquaint during their rehearsal of The Misanthrope with very humorous results.
The dynamic between Gauthier and Serge is the classic odd couple — Gauthier is tall, serious, handsome and a bit uptight; Serge is short, grizzled, eccentric and unreliable. Actors Fabrice Luchini (In the House, Potiche) and Lambert Wilson (You Ain’t Seen Nothing’ Yet, Catwoman) work well together and feel like old friends despite their obvious and subtle differences. At times the two couldn’t seem further apart, but when they start working together, they quickly click. Even when the two men are only playing their roles, they’re long history and friendly rivalry is felt. The ultimate success of Bicycling with Molière fully falls on the duo’s success together. While there is more to like in Luchini’s performance (he’s a bit more outwardly comical and interesting a character), the two work off of each other supremely well.
Much of Bicycling with Molière takes place during rehearsal sessions between the actors, furiously reciting lines with brief moments of character work interspersed. A remarkable amount of story and relationship is able to build in these scenes without a lot of effort. We also see among the more explicit examples of the acting process — at times it seems like we are peeking in behind-the-scenes. Their many discussions/arguments range from specific line readings, acting theory and the overall style of this rendition. This meta nature is enhanced by their decision to occasionally reverse roles, as we are able to see the process of each actor and their takes on each character. For anyone with experience or an interest in the finer points of acting, Bicycling with Molière is an interesting look at all of the profession’s intricacies while remaining a broad and entertaining comedy.
Instead of becoming a rather standard behind-the-scenes theatrical production, the film stays between its two stars. Though there may be the intention to actually open The Misanthrope, Gauthier and Serge never get anywhere in the process. Even when they invite an aspiring porn actress to read some lines with them, it isn’t necessarily to cast the part, but as an entertaining interlude in their new life together. The film gives due reverence to The Misanthrope, though the emphasis is always on the subtext of how the actors are relating to each other. Still, this device never becomes obvious, with particular scenes from the play directly mirroring the emotional space between Serge and Gauthier. It is clear that Bicycling with Molière is much more focused on these unique characters and letting the story build from there.
Bicycling with Molière has two major readings, and both provide plenty of entertainment and engagement. Looking at the film as a study of the process of acting sets it apart from most films about actors which are much more speechifying and explicit about the craft. This could be a merely intellectual experience, but Bicycling with Molière remains a funny and sharp character study, as well. There have been a number of very successful serio-comedies out of France the past few years, and Bicycling with Molière is one of the only that is able to truly work on both levels.