I very much enjoyed Alceste à bicyclette, especially after watching the peloton of the Tour de France at the weekend and remembering the bicycle ride in Jules et Jim which is definitely referenced here. This is the kind of film the French make so well. I calculate that there are probably two or three French films like this each year whereas in the UK there might be two or three like this each decade. That is a difference in film culture. What do I mean by this? Simply that here is a film that mixes high culture and popular culture references and plays mainly, I suspect, to a middle-aged and middle-class audience. There are two aspects of the film which will probably reduce the enjoyment of large numbers of the potential anglophone audience – they were a problem for me – but I hope that non-French speakers will give it a go. Those problems are the cultural importance of Molière in France (the equivalent of Shakespeare in England?) and the difficulty of portraying the specificities of elegant 17th century French dialogue in English subtitles.
The film presents a narrative that involves a mise en abîme – the use of a play within a play. Gauthier Valance (Lambert Wilson) is a successful TV actor who decides to massage his ego by putting on a theatrical presentation of Molière’s Le misanthrope (the French actor’s equivalent of producing Hamlet and playing the lead role himself?). He has the idea of casting an old colleague Serge (Fabrice Luchini) who retired several years ago, but who was a celebrated actor in films as well as on stage. He knows that Serge has a particular passion for Molière. Serge now lives on the Île de Ré, the exclusive resort off the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, in an old house he has inherited. Serge at first resists all Gauthier’s inducements but then decides it would be fun to ‘play’ Gauthier like a salmon, teasing him with a fly and then refusing him when he leaps. He suggests that they spend the next four days rehearsing scenes from the play and alternating the two main roles, Alceste, the lead and Philtrine. This is the mise en abîme as the two men exchange roles and try to top each other as they repeat lines of dialogue. They become aggressive and devious towards each other just like Molière’s characters and start to compete. Two women are included in the plot to help show up the male posturing. Zoé works in her aunt’s hotel and also as a porn actress, but she demonstrates that she can read Molière, just like she did at school. Francesca is the attractive Italian divorcée who plays the Jeanne Moreau role in the Jules et Jim reference, looking very fetching on her bike.
I know relatively little about Molière but I think he at some point came out with the classic humanist line about all characters having human foibles. Gauthier and Serge are both seriously flawed human beings, here played by actors putting in great performances. Personally I go with Serge and Fabrice Luchini is terrific in the pompous/vulnerable mode of comic acting. See our posts on Potiche and In the House. I laughed out loud on several occasions and the Île de Ré looks wonderful (although I’m told it is full of posh French tourists and costs €16 to cross the toll bridge). Lambert Wilson is also excellent in a role very different to his lead in Of Gods and Men. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else by writer-director Philippe Le Guay but I’ve noted that he is ‘thanked’ by the producers of Cherchez Hortense. He’s written a witty script which the two leads lap up with relish. There isn’t too much to watch in UK cinemas at the moment, so this is well worth a visit. Cyclists may also enjoy an Yves Montand chanson about a bicyclette which accompanies one of several cycling scenes.
Here is the delightful trailer (but be warned it includes some of the best bits of a film that is mainly dialogue-driven):