Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tribeca ’13: Cycling with Moliere

L’Île de Ré is sort of like the French Martha’s Vineyard.  It is pretty dead during the off-season, but if you wait long enough you are sure to spot someone famous.  Gauthier Valence is such a celebrity.  He hopes to recruit a retired colleague for a production of The Misanthrope in Philippe Le Guay’s Cycling with Molière (trailer here), which screens as a Spotlight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

The success of his medical drama even embarrasses Valence.  Serge Tanneur’s career went in the opposite direction following a legal spat with a producer.  Retiring to his late uncle’s ramshackle house on the isle, Tanneur has given up all acting ambitions until Valence comes calling.  Of course, the TV doctor wants to play Alceste.  He is the star.  Yet, when Tanneur balks, Valence suggests they alternate between the lead role and Philinte.  Neither saying yes or no, Tanneur keeps him on the hook during a week of trial rehearsals.  Sometimes they click, just like the old days, but there will be complications.

The Misanthrope’s significance to Tanneur is so fitting, Le Guay barely gives it nodding acknowledgement.  Instead, he concentrates on the actors’ craft and the demands of the verse.  Frankly, even after watching the film it is hard to say whether Valence and Tanneur are friends, frienemies, or rivals, which is quite a rich ambiguity.  There are some exquisitely bittersweet scenes, as when the old thesps do a reading with Zoé, the island’s young aspiring porn star.  Yes, they even run lines while biking.  That is how island folk seem to roll, after all.

While Cycling is extremely accessible, it is about as French as films get.  Le Guay’s screenplay, based on an idea co-developed with co-lead Fabrice Luchini, has considerable wit, but it is defined by a sense of longing and regret.  It also rather tastefully avoids big pay-off learning moments, instead remaining true to its characters’ flaws and foibles.

Luchini (whose recent credits include Laurent Tirard’s Molière and Le Guay’s charming Women on the 6th Floor) is overdue for a major American retrospective, but Cycling would be the perfect film to build it around.  He is completely convincing as a frustrated actor doing a mostly convincing Alceste.  His facility with language and brittle insecurities all feel right.  Lambert Wilson is perfectly fine as Valence, playing off Luchini quite well in some key scenes.  Yet, Maya Sansa nearly steals the show as Francesca, the Italian divorcee who attracts the attention of both men.  Likewise, Laurie Bordesoules makes the most of her brief but charming appearances as Zoé.

Cycling never really reinvents the wheel, but it is a refreshingly elegant and literate film.  The scenery is quite pleasant, while Luchini’s work still has real bite.  Recommended for all regular patrons of French cinema, Cycling with Molière screens again tomorrow (4/25) and Sunday (4/28) during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.