Cycling with Molière tells the story of an actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), who has gone into self-imposed exile on the Île de Ré, near La Rochelle in France. A former colleague and successful television star, Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), tracks him down in order to persuade him to take part in a new stage production of Molière’s Le Misanthrope – a play about a man, Alceste, who becomes disillusioned with the hypocrisy of French society and who decides to be entirely candid with everyone with whom he interacts. Naturally, Alceste’s ‘honesty’ leads him to become ever more alienated by society, a kind of alienation that Alceste perhaps even craves, as he tells people precisely what he thinks of them.
Le Guay’s film takes place over more or less a week, during which time the two leads rehearse and/or spar, swapping the roles of Alceste and his best friend, Philinte, who in Molière’s play is the raisonneur character, or voice of reason, who tries to convince Alceste that being more economical with ‘the truth’ can in fact lead to finding a comfortable place in the world and, perhaps, some sort of happiness.
During this period they also meet an Italian divorcee, Francesca (Maya Sansa), who is planning on leaving France; a young porn actress Zoé (Laurie Bourdesoules), who potentially aspires to become a stage actress; and a taxi driver (Stéphan Wojtowicz), whose mother has broken her femur and for whom Gauthier promises to find a doctor.
Broadly speaking, the film sees Serge as Alceste, the man who refuses to be a part of society, and Gauthier as Philinte – and it is these roles that the two for the most part adopt in their rehearsals of Le Misanthrope. However, the film explores how Serge equally has elements of Philinte about him, as Gauthier does Alceste, too. Serge, for example, can be entirely dishonest at times, as seen in some of the tricks that he plays on Gauthier (taking a phone call and loudly saying that he is not doing anything as he watches an episode of Gauthier’s House-style medical drama, Le docteur Morange, with Gauthier and Francesca). Meanwhile, it is Gauthier who at times expresses disappointment at the world of today – for example, gawping at house prices on the Île de Ré.
In other words, both characters have elements of both Philinte and Alceste about them. This is not to say that Molière’s characters are one-sided (and it is certainly not to say that the film is superior to Molière’s play), but it is to say that the film tries to bring Molière’s characters a new context – namely contemporary France.
Indeed, in addition to the character study that the film predominantly is, with two fantastic performances from two of France’s strongest actors, it is the asides on contemporary France that are perhaps a prime focus of the film.
As mentioned, property prices – together with discussions of money in general – loom large in the film, as does a disappointment with the ubiquitous nature of the mobile phone: Serge and Gauthier argue about the latter’s addiction to his phone, while Zoé seems more concerned with her phone than with watching Serge and Gauthier perform Molière’s play.
‘We live in an extraordinary age,’ says Serge at one point. And it seems as though this is a world in which good old-fashioned values have been lost. This becomes clear during a discussion of Molière himself: Gauthier wants to do a more up-to-date version of the text, while Serge insists that one must respect the original text, particularly its Alexandrine poetry (each line is composed of 12 syllables).
Serge wants to preserve the past, in effect, while Gauthier wants to move with the times (and arguably he is of the times as his prime motivation seems to be to make money – hence his work as Dr Morange – for €200,000 per episode). This is also signalled by the way in which Serge wants to ride a bicycle everywhere on the Île de Ré – the construction of a bridge to which Serge also laments.
Gauthier initially rides a bike and falls off. However, he soon is taken in by the charms of the bike, and by the end of the film, it is Serge who falls off his bike and into a canal. Tables turn in the film, such that by the end we somehow want both to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable differences, but are worried that somehow they won’t.
What we do have, though, is both characters kind of stuck in their ways – which is indeed a very Molière-like trope. In play after play, Molière presents to us a monomaniac: Alceste who believes he must always speak the truth, Dom Juan who must chase after women, Orgon in Le Tartuffe who insists that his family must obey him. And in play after play, the monomaniac is not quite cured by the end, but still somehow in search of what they want to find – Alceste goes off into the wilderness; Dom Juan refuses to repent; Orgon seems to suggest that while Tartuffe may have been outed, he still wants total control over his family.
And so it is in Alceste à bicyclette that we have neither Serge nor Gauthier as necessarily having learnt anything. Serge is on the Île de Ré as Gauthier realises that he still cannot get right a line from the first act of Le Misanthrope. ‘You wish an evil to befall humanity,’ says Philinte, to which Alceste normally replies: ‘Yes, I have conceived horrifying hatred for humanity.’ Except that Gauthier repeatedly says ‘Yes, I have conceived an unspeakable hatred for humanity.’
The difference between horrifying and unspeakable, effroyable and indicible, are important, says Serge. And it perhaps points to the way in which it is Philinte who is the real pessimist – believing that since humans cannot and will not change, then it is just worth playing along with the mores of a society in order to succeed. This means being insincere, as we see in Gauthier’s faux concern for the taxi driver’s mother, a concern that leads Gauthier to be in a fight at one point in the film.
It is Alceste, then, who is the optimist of the pair, because it is he who believes that humans can do better and who refuses to compromise in his bid for humans to be better, less conniving and more honest. Wayward as this quest may be (because it perhaps overlooks some of the benefits of dishonesty – a dishonesty that both Alceste and Serge at times share), it is in some ways admirable.
And in saying that his hatred for humanity is unspeakable, Gauthier in fact speaks precisely of his hatred for and cynicism concerning humanity – a fact also revealed subtly by his womanising, while Serge dreams of/idealises a more pure and innocent love, one that ultimately is not forthcoming (though we do not have Serge decry Francesca or the other female characters as Alceste decries Célimène in Molière’s play).
Serge plays at the idealist – but like the pipes in his garden, they cannot but burst at some point. While Gauthier plays at the realist, but whose underlying idealism is undermined when he comes into contact with reality – a jacuzzi that does not work, a fight with a cab driver. As such, Le Guay offers us a complex and thoughtful study of two characters, inspired by one of the great works of French and world literature.
‘On rît dans l’âme,’ said Molière of Le Misanthrope, though the phrase might apply to his plays more generally, since they are often described as comedies, but in the telling of which tragedy is never very far at all (indeed, when there is a comic/happy ending, as in Le Tartuffe, it normally happens via an unlikely deus ex machina device). We laugh in our souls, but not out loud. Alceste à bicyclette is a comedy, but not one full of belly laughs (though there are a couple of those). It is a comedy to provoke thought, some sort of nourishment for the soul, and for the mind. I hope that you enjoy it and get as much food for thought as I did.