It’s interesting, on an ancillary note, to consider the English and French titles of this film. The English title is, of course, the above referenced Bicycling with Molière. The French title is Alceste à bicyclette, which translates literally to Alceste on Bicycle. What this speaks to the relativistic nature that Molière and The Misanthrope has to English-speaking cultures, as opposed to in his native France. In France a mere mention of the name Alceste is already an allusion to Molière, such is his influence in French literature. Here it’s better to merely mention Molière to have a better chance of and audience to know what this film’s driving at based on its title. An analogy would be that if a similar concept would be attempted here a Shakespearean character’s name would be more recognizable such that the Bard’s name need not be in the title.
Yet, even admitting to a bit of cultural myopia on our part this is a film that can connect with audiences regardless of their familiarity with Molière and The Misanthrope in general. Furthermore, you get to see quite a bit of it rehearsed in scenes such that it can definitely intrigue one and whet their appetite for more.
The set-up for the film is that now-famous TV actor Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson) travels to Île de Ré to recruit his friend, now-retired reclusive actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini) to be in a revival of The Misanthrope that he is producing.
Naturally this concept is one that is very conducive to playing with the line that divides theater and film. There isn’t anything very revolutionary done but there are subtle touches. One of which deals with the characters they read and how they mirror Gauthier and Serge in their interactions. While the concept of an alexandrine may be something new to the viewers of this film the way this dramatic/poetic device highlights personality differences between the two not only in their approach to their profession but their overall philosophy. The would-be unprecedented trick of having Serge and Gauthier alternate between Alceste and Philinte it allows even more aspects to be examined and more acting muscle to be flexed organically.
There is much muscle to be flexed indeed for the actors and both Wilson and Luchini are both fantastic. They have definitive approaches to the roles that have to tackle in reads, but also convey the complexity and humanity of their characters outside the framework of the play. Furthermore, with scenes of Valence’s medical drama on display Wilson shows a third acting style in just one film.
Yet with all that symbiosis and the tackling of a classical work it’s not merely an intellectual exercise. It is billed as a comedy and the humor does translate and comes from the characters and not out of knowledge requisite to follow it. Therefore, there’s a universal commonality that allows the audience comfort, and, should they be interested enough they can look into Molière and his works later.
Due to the fact that it’s the people and not the situations so much that make the film funny, on the flip side because you can understand the characters and they are well-defined the drama makes sense is appealing. This perhaps shows itself best as Francesca (Maya Sansa) is fleshed out. With the presumed performance coming it seems prudent for Gauthier to buy a getaway house. At first Francesca is a brusque, abrasive b-word. Then she opens herself up and connects to each of them on an individual basis and contributes well to the whole.
From the outside Bicycling with Molière may seem like and ivory tower dweller’s delight, but there is an approachability and relatability to the humor that make it a welcome treat for all. The theatrical tricks, TV Drama jokes and the like are just icing on the cake.