Why Should We Care?

Bicycling with Molière is a film that could use some inviting personalities

There is a lot of "Why should we care?" in Bicycling with Molière, a French comedy about old actors and older theatre. Not that the theatre itself is unworthy: Molière was one of the greatest dramatists to ever live. Tartuffe is probably the most universally applicable of his plays, a withering satire that even in literal translations is quite funny.

The play in question here, however, is The Misanthrope, another classic comedy with a pair of juicy roles: Alceste (the misanthrope who falls for the beautiful Célimène) and Philinte (his foil and antithesis). Presumably, in France, these things need less explanation, but if you're coming into this one uninitiated, some if it might catch you flat-footed.

The approach is solid enough: A successful movie and television actor named Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) has decided it's time to be taken seriously. And for any French actor, being taken seriously means working on the stage. (In America, actors are taken seriously when they lose 40 pounds for a role). He's mounting a production of The Misanthrope, casting himself as Alceste. For the role of Philinte, he seeks out his old friend Serge (Fabrice Luchini, who co-wrote). Serge tells Gauthier that he's retired and won't work on stage again...unless he gets to play Alceste instead.

They compromise: Gauthier and Serge will alternate roles each week of the production. And for much of the next hour, we see the actors rehearse their lines and become increasingly territorial about their work. We also witness them bicycling - just as the title promises! - and watch them fall for the same woman. It's all thoroughly drawn out, because how many times can you watch guys recite 450-year-old dialogue?

You have likely seen Lambert Wilson without realizing it; he was the slimy Merovingian in the second Matrix movie, and he showed up in Catwoman and Matthew McConaughey's infinitely forgettable Sahara. So, perhaps, if you have seen him, you'd never admit it.

Luchini has kept his focus more on the European front (he was excellent in the recent export In the House). They both play men who, in this chapter of their lives, you'd probably want to avoid. Gauthier takes himself too seriously and Serge is just an asshole most of the time. Perhaps he always was. He has fallen not too far from the tree of Amadeus' Salieri, a man tormented by the success and talent of others when his own should be perfectly fine. There is, not surprisingly, a bit of the DNA from the principals in The Misanthrope within the contemporary actors trying to scale its heights.

The comedy in Bicycling with Molière is really labored. In part, that's because the film appears to still harbor fantasies of being something grander than it is. If it took the gloves off and really explored the vanity of its characters, this might have been a terrific dark comedy about ego and power. What's on display instead is lukewarm, too broad at times, and too intense at others.

But back to the "Why should we care?" The characters, as well-executed as they are, aren't inviting personalities. For most audiences, The Misantrhope is not exactly an easy way in. And then there are the film's struggles with its own identity. In almost every scene, the mood changes too sharply and without much cause. That's a lot to overlook before you could ever start to warm up to this movie.

In the end, we might have been better off with a movie about biking with Molière, or just one about Molière. Or, for that matter, just a production of The Misanthrope.

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