Slowing down with Moliere

The French film I went to see late last week at the Watershed, Cycling with Moliere (its French title – Alceste a bicyclette) has managed to set the tempo to a slower pace after the recent overload of sporting entertainment. A jolly romp in a scenic setting that also reveals home truths about one of my favourite subjects – trust in friendships.

When Gauthier Valence (played by the very American sounding Lambert Wilson), a famous soap star seeks out Serge Tanneur (played by the masterly Fabrice Luchini), who lives the life of a recluse in the beautiful island off La Rochelle, Ile de Re, he tries to persuade him to get back to acting again – this time to tread the boards for a production of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope.

A bit like Iago and Othello, the friendship of Alceste and Philinte in the classic play is one of reluctant admiration that conceals a deep rivalry. There are further layers – Alceste is the misanthrope with a deep burning hatred of humanity and Philinte, a polite gentle soul who recognises the value of veiling one’s true opinions in a social context. There is also a woman whose attention they vie for.

In Cycling with Moliere, there’s suspicion and a definite contempt on the part of Serge for Gauthier, who appears rich, good-looking and in his opinion, lacking in substance. But, Gauthier says he respects Serge’s acting skills and believes they can pull this off. Reluctantly, Serge agrees to rehearse on his terms – for a week, he says, before they decide whether it could work. They argue about who will play Alceste and toss a coin every morning to decide. As they recite the powerful verses from the original play, their real life friendship begins to show a strong resemblance to their fictional characters. When an Italian divorcee appears to fall for the rather ordinary looking Serge, trouble of a romantic kind isn’t far away. As the film progresses, Gauthier is not as suave and charming as he appears to be.

It is all that a French film does brilliantly. It is farcical in parts – Serge who has decided to have a vasectomy changes his mind when the lovely divorcee gives him a lift to the hospital. It has some good slapstick moments – the Jacuzzi in the hotel courtyard (that used to be a horse-trough) has a mini tsunami when Gauthier goes for a dip. It manages to be a sharp observation on our flaws and predilections but does it with such a light touch.

The tension between the two thespians builds steadily and the ending is not neat and sweet – it leaves us wondering about what is the important ingredient that makes friendships last, whether a connection once lost is irretrievable and shouldn’t there be a place for forgiveness based on trust and affection?

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