Don’t look for a Hollywood remake of “Bicycling With Molière” any time soon. Not because a suitable title couldn’t be found — “Skateboarding With Shakespeare,” perhaps — but because this kind of charming, literate and sophisticated French film does not fit the spirit of the contemporary studio age.
Written and directed by Philippe Le Guay, who did the similarly engaging “The Women on the 6th Floor,” “Molière” is a polished, character-driven entertainment enlivened by flashes of droll humor. It deals lightly with topics like ego, friendship, rivalry and love, and it does so within the context of an exploration of the personal and professional lives of a pair of actors.
It is the glamorous Gauthier Valence we meet first, scarf theatrically wrapped around his neck. As played by Lambert Wilson (very different from his roles in “The Matrix” and “Of Gods and Men”), he is the well-paid star of a TV show no one in France ever misses, playing a brain surgeon specializing in life-saving operations under impossible conditions.
But Gauthier has higher ambitions, and those bring him to the Ile de Ré, off France’s Atlantic coast, where he seeks out Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini, the star of “6th Floor”), a colleague he hasn’t seen in years.
Living in a dilapidated house left to him by an uncle, Serge is not exactly Mr. Congeniality. Cranky and crotchety, he says he gave up acting years ago, proudly uses whatever scripts get sent to him as kindling to prove his point, and views his former occupation as “a dirty business with vulgar people who lie and betray.”
Though daunted at first, Gauthier forges ahead and asks Serge to make a comeback costarring with him in a Parisian production of Molière’s classic “The Misanthrope,” a play about a relentless truth teller that Serge (as well as actor Luchini) knows inside out. Intrigued but not necessarily convinced, Serge suggests they rehearse the play for the rest of the week and make a decision about Paris then.
As much rivals as friends, these two men can’t agree on anything, not even who should play lead character Alceste (the film’s original French title is “Alceste à Bicyclette”) or the supporting role of Philinte. In fact, they end up having to flip a coin each time they begin to rehearse.
One of “Molière’s” treats is this series of rehearsals, which are great fun because of the language itself, the passion with which the actors throw themselves into the work, and the amusing arguments they have over such issues as how precise their elocution should be and whether cellphones need to be on or off during the process.
Gauthier and Serge do not spend all their time rehearsing, of course. They make the acquaintance of Zoé (Laurie Bordesoules), a blithe young actress who specializes in pornography, and do some house hunting for the cash-rich Gauthier, during the course of which they meet Francesca.
Richly played by Maya Sansa, memorable in “The Best of Youth,” Francesca is selling her house because she’s going through a bitter divorce. Though she claims to find all actors narcissists, she soon enough becomes a person of interest to both men.
It is “The Misanthrope,” of course, that truly obsesses the actors, and as Serge and Gauthier have at it again and again, we can see that what happens between them offstage is affecting their line readings: They are in effect living a version of the classic play. Doing this work ends up changing their relationship, not to mention their very lives.