Alceste à Bicyclette

February 7, 2010By Nick HammondArchive

Great Idea for a Film
Veers off Course

Paris Update Alceste a Bicyclette

Fabrice Luchini, playing actor Serge Tanneur, wears his Alceste costume to a party.

It is easy to imagine actor Fabrice Luchini and director Philippe Le Guay sitting down to hatch a brilliant idea for a movie: take one of the most beloved theatrical plays from the French canon, put it in a holiday location frequented by the chic French intelligentsia, update it, throw one of the finest French actors into the mix, and hey presto! A sure-fire hit, surely? Well, not quite.

In Alceste à Bicyclette, Luchini plays Serge Tanneur, an actor who has retired from the stage and who lives an isolated life in a dilapidated house on the Ile de Ré. When an old friend, Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), a well-known television star, comes to visit Serge in an attempt to persuade him to come out of his self-imposed exile to act in Molière’s Le Misanthrope, the stage is set for a sophisticated comedy in which life imitates the theater. The two men alternate in acting out the two main roles in Le Misanthrope, the world-weary Alceste and his phlegmatic friend Philinte. As they rehearse together, there is much to enjoy as two excellent theatrical and cinematic actors perform Molière’s wonderful lines.

The introduction of two female characters, the solemn Francesca (Maya Sansa) and the young porn actress Zoé (Laurie Bordesoules), seems promising as they overlap with two female characters in the 17th-century play: the sensible Eliante, who admires Alceste, and the coquettish Célimène, with whom Alceste is so inappropriately and improbably in love. Yet, having established these links, director/writer Le Guay simply leaves them completely undeveloped, especially in the case of the modern equivalent of Célimène, who is such a crucial character in the play.

The good idea remains simply that, a good idea that never quite gets off the starting blocks. Even the bleak beauty of an out-of-season Ile de Ré does little to offset the meandering nature of the film. It does not help either that Le Guay views Molière’s play as a dark tragedy rather than the hilarious and subtle comedy that it can and should be: tellingly, the scene played in a theater at the end of the movie has not one laugh in it, which reminds me of some of the turgid Molière productions that I have seen at the Comédie Française, the bastion of Parisian classical theater.

Unfortunately, Alceste à Bicyclette, like one of the many unfunny slapstick scenes that punctuate the movie, starts promisingly but ends up veering off course and landing in a muddy swamp.

Nick Hammond

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