A French Film About Theater - the Most Pleasurable Combination

'Cycling with Moliere' is about two theater actors rehearsing a play but, in essence, this is really a story about interpersonal relations, about different philosophical approaches to life and about the manner in which language - in this case, French - shapes both our lives and reality.

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I have a confession to make: I am not an avid filmgoer. First of all, I spend most of my free evenings at the theater (for which I get paid, by the way). Second, although I am aware of the endless opportunities that the art of cinema affords, I still prefer theater’s immediate, living human aspect. Third, I remind myself from time to time – like someone whistling in the dark – that, when movies were invented, people predicted the demise of theater (just as people prophesied the end of movies when television was invented). Yet, lo and behold, theater continues to thrive as an art form (and the same can be said for movies and television).

Nevertheless, when the subject of a film is the theater, I obviously want to see it. In this particular case, I must express especial thanks to French cinema. This Saturday night, the French film, “Cycling with Moliere” from writer-director Philippe Le Guay, will open Israel’s 10th French Film Festival, scheduled to run from March 9 to 19 in cinematheques around the country; the film will subsequently be screened in movie theaters throughout Israel. When I say that “Cycling with Moliere” is about the theater, that is true both on the theoretical and practical levels: Its plot involves a meeting between two theater actors as they rehearse their parts in a play. However, in essence, as one usually finds in an artistic creation, this is really the story about interpersonal relations, about different philosophical approaches to life and about the manner in which language – in this case, French – shapes both our lives and reality.

In French, the movie is called “Alceste a bicyclette” (which literally means “Alceste Riding a Bicycle”); the film’s creators assumed that French audiences, familiar with Moliere’s play, “Le Misanthrope” (“The Misanthrope”), which is taught in high schools in France, would therefore immediately understand the allusion to Alceste, the chief protagonist in this play and would not have to be told the meaning of the word “misanthrope,” which can be defined as “someone who hates humankind.” That definition was used by Natan Alterman, who is known primarily for his poetry, in his translation of the play’s title into Hebrew.

I am not sure whether the assumption of the film’s creators holds true for all French filmgoers today nor am I very sure (as I once was) that all of my readers are familiar with the plot of “Le Misanthrope” (as, in my opinion, all self-respecting cultured individuals should be). Therefore, I will summarize the plot briefly: Alceste is a person who attaches immense importance to integrity and truth; for that reason, he loathes the society in which he lives and which is characterized by hypocrisy and exaggerated politeness. He would prefer to escape this society and to live alone in the desert. His friend, Philinte, is much more tolerant of the flaws and weaknesses of human nature and follows the principle of “Live and let live.” The plot becomes more complicated as Alceste loves a young widow, Celimene, who enjoys the social game and loves to flirt with every man.

However, this film is not a cinematic adaptation of the classic play by Moliere (the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673) but a very free adaptation of “Le Misanthrope.” One of the movie’s protagonists is the star of a popular television series by the name of Gauthier Valence, who is played by Lambert Wilson, who himself is a very popular actor in France. Gauthier sets off for Ile de Re, an isolated island far from the central part of the country, where a colleague and fellow actor, Serge Tanneur, has decided to take up residence. Disgusted with show business, where he finds everything to be sham and flattery, he has become a recluse. Serge is portrayed by Fabrice Luchini, a French theater and film actor who is also well known for the programs in which he presents excerpts from classical literature (such as, for example, “The Fables” of Jean de La Fontaine).

In “Cycling with Moliere,” Gauthier, the successful TV actor, wants to become a theater star in a classical role. He remembers how, on one occasion when he was on a movie set with Serge, the now-reclusive actor explained to him that the really important role in “Le Misanthrope” is that of Philinte, who is always willing to compromise and who is both logical and tolerant. This is the role that Gauthier wants Serge to accept, while he himself plans to play the chief protagonist, Alceste.

However – and here is one of the brilliant elements in the film – Serge the recluse is actually a misanthrope. Although, at the theoretical level, he describes Philinte as the play’s most interesting character, he knows, at the practical level, that Philinte appears on stage for only five scenes, whereas Alceste is on stage almost all the time. Sensing that, Gauthier – who is really of the same mold as Philinte, an individual who knows how to get along with everyone – proposes that he and Serge alternately play this character on stage. Serge, the misanthropic actor, demands that they rehearse their parts for five days; only then will he decide whether or not to take up Gauthier’s suggestion. They decide who rehearses which part on any given day by flipping a coin.

The film follows the process of the rehearsals and the relationship between the two; this relationship becomes clearer as Gauthier and Serge grapple with Moliere’s text, in which Alceste and Philinte debate what the proper approach should be to the world, to humanity and to society.

The differences between Gauthier and Serge come to the surface, for instance, when the TV star errs in the accentuation of one of the words in the play and the recluse, who knows every syllable in “Le Misanthrope” by heart, insists that the pronunciation must be perfect. When one listens to the French words being spoken on the screen, one realizes that Moliere’s language – with its rhyming and its meter, with its lovely sound and with its simplicity and down-to-earth nature, devoid of images, complications and syntactical convolutions – is truly wondrous.

A cousin of the owner of the motel in which Gauthier stays aspires to be an actress, and right now she is specializing in pornographic movies. This cousin (played by Laurie Bourdesoules) is invited by Gauthier to one of the rehearsals. When she is asked to read the part of the chief female protagonist, Celimene, this young and unsophisticated woman reads the part in a mechanical manner in accordance with its specific rhythm yet, right before the viewers’ eyes, she blossoms into a character that projects depth and meaning. When one is faithful to Moliere’s text, it speaks for itself.

Of course, one could dismiss “Cycling with Moliere” as a film concerned with something that is intrinsically French and which focuses on words and talking heads – subjects that are ostensibly foreign to the possibilities of cinematic art. However, if one is prepared to listen to the film’s subtleties, its language and its dialogue, one realizes that “Cycling with Moliere” is a movie that effectively uses theater (the character of actors, the attitude toward them, and a specific classical text with all its unique qualities and beauty) but which also creates a confrontation, in strict faithfulness to “Le Misanthrope,” between two different approaches to life and art. Whereas, in everyday life, it is important to be a Philinte and to display tolerance, understanding and patience, in art, one must be exacting, one must be a perfectionist because, in artistic creations, even the smallest detail is important.

When I emerged from the movie theater after watching this film, I felt that I had spent slightly more than 100 minutes with two very different actors, with two very different attitudes to life and art, with an entire world of culture in which relations between people, between form and content, between the classical and the modern, between life and theater are clarified. All this happens on a picturesque island with a breathtaking seascape, as the viewer sees people riding on bicycles and hears the music of the French language which, to my ears, is utterly enchanting.

So, after I have said all this, you might ask me why I prefer theater to cinema. Well, just look at how much inspiration one classical play can generate.

A scene from 'Cycling with Moliere,' by writer-director Philippe Le Guay. Credit: Courtesy
Illustration: a movie cinema.Credit: Moti Milrod

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