If Shakespeare exposes the cosmic truths, Moliere does a better job at exposing the social truths of our time. He gets not only at the dissimulation and hypocrisy that sometimes seem endemic to social interactions, but at the delusion of imagining we can rise above such things and remain "social" ourselves. Yet there’s a humanity at the root of Moliere's vision, and he shows us that, too.
In Moliere on a Bicycle, we focus on a few days in the life of a suave (and very popular) TV actor named Gauthier Valence who journeys to the Ile de Re, off the Breton coast, in hopes of entreating his colleague Serge to return from self-imposed exile and appear with him in a production of The Misanthrope.
The play itself, as most readers know, is about a man who divorces himself from society in much the same way that Serge has. “Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race,” Alceste remarks early on in the play, and Serge might well be following the same agenda.
Serge is played by Fabrice Luchini, who often seems out of place when he appears as a leading man in French films. He's perfectly cast here as a talented but perhaps slightly vain actor who feels he’s been wronged by his colleagues in the industry and wants nothing more to do with the theater. Serge now lives in a large but dilapidated home by the sea that he inherited from a rich uncle. “Of his ten nephews and nieces, I was the only one who sent him a Christmas card,” he explains dismissively.
Gautier is dismayed by the clutter he finds in Serge's house but eager to recruit his former acting colleague, whose talent he respects highly. It’s not so clear what Serge thinks of Gautier’s acting ability, though he does agree to rehearse the play for a few days before deciding whether to reject the proposal outright. But Serge is shocked when Gautier suggests that he play Philinte, while Gautier himself takes the central role of Alceste.
“I’ve been rehearsing Alceste for thirty years,” he explodes. The two overcome this obstacle by agreeing that they’ll switch roles daily based on the flip of a coin.
Another element is added to the plot when Gautier, who doesn’t want Serge to think he’s desperate to recruit him, claims that he was just passing by, having come out to the island primarily to look for vacation property. Segre calls a realtor immediately, to Gautier's chagrin, and the two go on several agonized house-hunting trips in the course of the film.
One of the homes they visit is owned by a snappish Italian woman who’s in the midst of a divorce. She fails to recognize the famous TV actor, and Serge introduces Gautier to her. “I don’t know French TV,” she replies matter-of-factly, “and I don’t like actors. They’re too narcissistic.”
Yet after giving Serge a ride to the hospital (amusing in itself, though I won’t tell you why) she begins to hang around with Serge and Gautier in the evenings, which adds some additional spice to the pot.
When Moliere on a Bicycle was released in 2013, the Hollywood Insider predicted that it would find success in France, “with strong overseas possibilities if marketed to older art house audiences.”
I guess that’s me. I find it interesting to watch middle-aged men argue passionately over whether all twelve syllables in an Alexandrian line really need to be pronounced. “Are you calling me a TV actor?” Gautier shouts at one point.
As Serge and Gautier run through their speeches again and again, subtle currents of tension and hostility blend with a shared professionalism and love of the theater. The lines they rehearse might just as well be lifted from the play and applied to them. The film raises the same questions that the play does--when does honor become mere vanity, when does tactful, courteous dissimulation become deceit? How can a balance between admiration and competition be maintained between friends? And how is one to judge when honest criticism begins to cut too deep?
Yet there’s nothing “stuffy” about Moliere on a Bicycle. The Breton countryside is nice and moments of slapstick abound. A few of the bicycling scenes will remind film-goers of Jules and Jim--and that's a pleasant association.