The 17th Annual European Union Film Festival is at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s one of my favorite film events of the year, and I’ll give some quick capsule reviews on the films I manage to see throughout the fest.
Phillipe Le Guay’s Bicycling With Moliere (Alceste à Bicyclette) (France, 2013), for what it is, is a pleasantly agreeable movie. Gautier Valance (Lambert Wilson) is a veteran actor whose ship has come in with the lead role in a nationally beloved prime-time soap opera, “Dr. Morange.”. But, despite his riches and success, he misses The Stage; with his recent windfall of resources and recognition, he decides to produce a production of Molière’s The Misanthrope in Paris, and attempts to bring another actor out of retirement to play opposite him, the formerly brilliant, but now retired and reclusive Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini). Valance tracks Tanneur down to a remote rural village near the Ile de Ré, on the central Atlantic coast, and makes his proposal.
Tanneur, much like the protagonist of The Misanthrope, has had enough of big-city society and the aspiring dilettantes who have cheapened theatrical endeavor, and wants to be left alone in retirement. But Alceste, the bitter but brilliant lead of the play, is the dream role of many a French actor, and he takes Valence’s offer seriously. He suggests they rehearse the play together for a week, there, in order to flesh out the foundations of their approach; only after the two of them have done that will he decide whether it’s worth his while to commit. And so begins the game; Valance knows he’s good enough, and resourceful enough, to do this, but needs Tanneur to lend bedrock theatrical authenticity and prestige to the production. Tanneur needs to know whether this production is simply an ego-feeding indulgence that Valance can afford, or whether it’ll be a truly landmark production that meets his own high standards.
The film then bounces back and forth between The Battle of the Snooty Actors and a genuinely rigorous examination of one of the theater’s great works of art. And it works pretty well on that level – intelligent, eccentric and funny, but with some very real personal stakes. Everything outside of that mano-a-mano, however, is disappointingly formulaic. There’s a throwaway subplot about Valance doing a little area househunting, and they meet a tempestuous Italian woman who is in the midst of ending a problematic relationship, but neither of those offshoots lead anywhere interesting (despite the participation of Maya Sanza, a terrific actress who is often used by Marco Bellocchio in his films). There’s a potentially intriguing short episode involving the hotel keeper’s young niece, Zoé (Laurie Bordesoules), who may either be another lame aspiring porn star or an undiscovered actress of genius, but that runs uneventfully aground as well. Watching reliable French pros Lambert and Luchini at work is a real treat, but director LeGuay just can’t offer much else in support of that juicy central conceit. Any visual interest is supplied by the rustic Ile de Ré surroundings and some characteristically simple interiors – the acting sequences are engaging, but everything else is pretty standard narrative film set-ups, not too far removed from a Rick Steves travelogue. The film is a pleasant enough Saturday afternoon divertissement, but there’s not much here that’ll stick to your mental ribs very soon afterwards.
‘Bicycling With Moliere’ screens on Friday, March 21st at 6:00 p.m. and Saturday the 22nd at 3:00 p.m.