Classic modern interpretation of Molière's somewhat odd play
The film made for French TV and first shown 6 November 1965 is directed by Marcel Bluwal. He was born in 1925 but has directed TV movies and series for five decades and directed one in 2013.The austere but elegant black and white film using real environments, outdoors, an empty part of Versailles, a palatial restaurant, a remarkable temple-mausoleum, and a lot of snappy horseback riding, with stripped-down costumes that nod to the 17th century and the 20th, seem aware of Resnais' Marientbad and Cocteau. An appropriately solemn, fatalistic note is set by the thematic use of Mozart's Requiem Mass. What could be better than Michel Piccoli as Dom Juan and Pierre Brasseur as Sganarelle? Bluwal may not be an original but he's a pro. This is pure class.
The entire film is currently available on YouTube in an excellent print provided by Boulevard du VHS. There are no English subtitles but for students of French the text can easily be consulted online while watching on the website www.toutmoliere.net. To access the video look for 'Dom Juan (Théâtre - Molière - Piccoli - Brasseur).'
As for the play, despite moments of wit and a fluency of construction beautifully set off by this production that is faithful to every word of the text (allowing for variations), it is of a startling severity. This is the story of Don Juan recast as a medieval morality play in 17th-century dress -- though some contemporaries apparently felt it celebrated atheism (didn't they see Don Juan went straight to hell at the end?). It's hard to know what to make of it, when you think this came just a few years before the beginning of English Restoration comedy. Where is the irony, the wit, the bawdy of this period? Things must have been dicier in Paris. A further explanation of the atypical nature of the play is that it was written to give Molière's troupe work when Tartuffe had been taken off the stage for reasons of "religions policy" (French Wikipedia article on Dom Juan) and The Misanthrope was in the works. Molière turned it out quickly, on a popular subject (Don Juan), and showing off in bald terms his disapproval of the immorality of his age and especially hypocrisy -- the latter, a failing even the most liberal thinkers abhor. (Larry Flynt would agree.)
The 'Festin de Pierre' theme was an effort to mount a theatrically spectacular production imitative of the Italian style, though except for the moving statue that may not come through so well in Bluwal's austere production. In the event, this 'Dom Juan' didn't run very long in its prose form (it was set to verse later by Corneille) and Molière forgot about it and it was not published in his lifetime.
However unyielding and cold the play's basic trajectory, the impeccable and stylish film version gives you plenty to ponder and enhances a sense of Molière's art, the speed of the language and the fluency with which one scene flows into the next within each of the five acts. And it's impressive to see the legendary Michel Piccoli, still working today (2014) in his mid-eighties, a key actor in the Nouvelle Vague and a favorite of Alain Resnais, so vigorous in this role, along with Claude Brasseur, who had been in Godard's Band of Outsiders the previous year.
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