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A once great actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), has retired from the limelight. Too much pressure meant that one day, he simply decided he would act no more. For the past three years, he has lived in solitude on the Île de Ré, spending his time cycling through the windswept landscape. Fellow actor Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), whose career is flying high, is planning a production of Molière's play The Misanthrope and wants to offer Serge the role of Filinte. Gauthier is convinced he will accept, since Serge himself has become a misanthrope, withdrawn from society and raging against the world. It would be wonderful to see him return in that part. But Serge plays hard to get, first of all as he want to play the title role. Instead of committing, he suggests they rehearse together for the week. Things look to be going well, especially when a mysterious Italian divorcee (Maya Sansa) brings a romantic spark into his life. With the play's producer, Gauthier's agent and his lover ... Written by
Accepting the world and its ways as they are - however crooked they may be - and be sociable, at the risk of falseness and compromise or sticking to one's moral principles and remaining upright at the risk of keeping a stiff upper lip and becoming estranged from others, such was the problematics in Molière's classic comedy of manners 'The Misanthrope or the Cantankerous Lover', written in 1666.
Verifying the relevance and the permanence of this questioning three centuries and a half later, such is Philippe Le Guay's objective in 'Alceste à bicyclette' (Bicycling with Molière), a contemporary cinematic comedy of manners, which might well become a classic of the genre in the years to come.
Our present-time Alceste goes by the name of Serge Tanneur and is personified in a tailor-made role by Fabrice Luchini. Serge is the very type of the demanding actor who places his art above everything else. He is now retired in his home on the Île de Ré because he refuses to go on playing in inferior commercial products. Face to him meet the Philinte of today, Gauthier Valence, his former friend, a fellow-actor who also thinks high of his art, but who has squandered his talent in basely commercial stuff, especially in a TV soap entitled "Dr. Morange", which has made him a star adored by audiences, especially female.
What brings together the two thespians, one stern and pure, the other wavering and impure, is the latter's wish to clean up his tarnished reputation by grappling with loftier material. To this end he is to direct - what else? - 'The Misanthrope' and to play - who else? - the role of Philinte in a prestigious production of Molière's masterpiece. And who has he considered for the part of Alceste ? Well done, good guess: Serge Tanneur!
The question is: will the misanthropist accept to play 'The Misanthrope' alongside a traitor to his art like Gauthier ? Naturally, nothing is less certain...
Revolving around the improbable reunion of two former friends turned enemies, 'Alceste à bicyclette' could be content to be an amusing ego vs. ego comedy, served by two major actors. Which it is actually: how could it be otherwise with Fabrice Luchini confronting Lambert Wilson, the former haughty, aggressive, never getting off his high horse and the latter charming, cajoling but maybe even more devious than his partner? But a closer look reveals a much more complex work dealing intelligently with various themes among which: - how to play a classic and keep current audiences interested, - purity and intolerance; opportunism and sociability, - the moral's of today's world - friendship and betrayal, - true love and philandering. Be reassured though. Philippe Le Guay is not one of those arty artists worked up about things and always giving lessons. On the contrary, the author does his utmost to help the medicine go down by resorting to the best excipient ever, comedy. For sure, when it comes to humor, Le Guay masters all the ropes to perfection. In this particular movie, he runs the whole gamut of laughter, from the most basic sight gags (Lambert Wilson trapped in a jacuzzi run wild; the same repeatedly falling off his bike) to the most sophisticated ones (Serge's way to avenge himself). And that is not all. Not content to be intelligent and funny, "Alceste à bicyclette" has genuine moments of emotion (I refer, in particular to two really moving sequences, that of Serge's return to life through love for an Italian woman and the other featuring a teenager acting in porn movies unexpectedly transcended by her sensitive reading of Molière's text). French audiences were in no way deterred by a movie dealing essentially with the rehearsals of a play written in the language of the 17th century. Over a million people came to see it. This just shows what wonders Philippe Le Guay and his faithful cohort Fabrice Luchini can work. They already done it with 'L'année Juliette', 'Le coût de la vie' and 'Les femmes du 6ème étage'. Let us hope they will do it again soon.
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