Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – or Molière to use his nom de plume – created comedy out of farce and underlaid a fierce anger that railed against the church and moral hypocrisy. In Philippe Le Guay’s Cycling with Molière (2013), we have what François Truffaut called the cinéma de papa; a bland concoction that peters out from a premise that promises so much but ultimately leaves its audience disappointed. It appears at first glance that all the elements conjoining within Cycling with Molière would edge us towards an experience that alternates between the highs and lows of culture while focusing on the foibles of the original odd couple: Alceste and Philinte, from Molière’s The Misanthrope.
Serge (Fabrice Luchini, who formed the original idea with the director) is a retired actor hiding away on the island of Île de Ré, sick of the machinations of theatrical life. He is very much done with thespian counterbalance and now wallows in his own company: “Betrayed and wronged in everything, I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king, And seek some spot unpeopled and apart. Where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.” His tranquil isolation is disturbed by his old friend, Gauthier (Lambert Wilson), a success within the mediocrity of French television who seeks a creative rejuvenation by appearing in The Misanthrope. He tries to convince Serge to accept the part of Philinte to his Alceste, but the role of the foil is unacceptable to Serge and the pair start alternating between the two contrasting characters.
Laurence Oliver once referred to Molière as being as “funny as a baby’s open grave”; wherein lines the problem for Cycling with Molière. It’s a failure as a comedy especially and how much you get out of the film will depend on how you know the play. The mirroring effect of the two leads and their retrospective roles in The Misanthrope are subtlety done but will fly over the head of the uninitiated. As for the rest of us, it’s beyond obvious that Serge is far more suited to play Alceste than Philinte; for this the comedy doesn’t really arrive at anything further placed than age old abrasive old friends rubbing each other up the wrong way. There are elements very much misplaced, especially the subplot of the young porn actress who the actors attempt to talk out of her chosen career.
The ferocity of Molière’s anger, wit and comradeship only lightly sparkles in the two central performances of Luchini and Wilson. Luchini is perhaps the greatest facial actor of contemporary times – one could easily lather in his constant puzzled expressions that run the gamut from A to Z – while Wilson here plays against type and gives us all the vanity of a self-hating soap actor who yearns to be taken seriously, but with a kindness and humanity that we don’t expect from such a man. Sadly, Cycling with Molière’s biggest mistake is in forgetting the elegiac nature of Molière’s comradeship, his love of life and elemental joie de vivre which has been in lost somewhat in this passable but unimaginative meander through one of the great pieces of French literature.