Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson in

Staging what could be described as a Moliere-off, the new film from Philippe Le Guay casts his regular star, Fabrice Luchini, as a nebbishy, reclusive thespian who's coaxed out of retirement by a swoony TV star who wants to make his legit directorial debut with the Gallic bard's "The Misanthrope."

Staging what could be described as a Moliere-off, the new film from Philippe Le Guay casts his regular star, Fabrice Luchini, as a nebbishy, reclusive thespian who’s coaxed out of retirement by a swoony TV star who wants to make his legit directorial debut with the Gallic bard’s “The Misanthrope.” Not content to simply and cleverly echo the themes of the classic text, “Cycling With Moliere” also offers a wonderful dissection of the work of an actor, as the protags continually switch roles during rehearsals. The film’s mid-January local opening was solid and wider play is certainly possible, including Stateside.

Pic marks the fourth time Le Guay (“The Cost of Living,” “L’annee Juliette”) and Luchini have worked together, though it’s the first time the unassuming star is credited as having inspired the screenplay. The idea reportedly emerged when the scribe-helmer went to visit his muse on the island known as Ile de Re to propose that he play the lead in “The Women on the Sixth Floor” (their previous collaboration). Luchini, recently also in Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” and “In the House,” is equally at ease onstage, onscreen and in literary-themed readings and audio recordings, and “Cycling” was written with his obsession with Moliere in mind.

The basic setup, like those in the director’s previous works, is rather straightforward: Serge Tanneur (Luchini), a celebrated film and stage actor, has retired after a severe depression and moved into an inherited cottage on Ile de Re. He’s visited by Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), who stars in a popular TV series as a handsome (and hammy) brain surgeon. Valence wants to direct and co-star with Tanneur in Moliere’s “Misanthrope,” with the two alternating between the lead role of Alceste (“he’s all about contained anger”) and the supporting role of Philinte, an altogether more reasonable being.

Most of the film shows the thesps acting out variations on the grandiose first scene of act one, as Tanneur has decided he’ll make up his mind about accepting the challenge only after a week of intense rehearsals. The many differences between the men, and not just in acting styles, arise organically from these scenes, with Le Guay also playfully suggesting what goes into an actor’s preparation, how a director can impose his vision on a classical text, and how a centuries-old play can be made relevant and accessible for modern auds. And more often than not, it seems as if the (surprise!) somewhat misanthropic Serge is directing Gauthier rather than vice versa.

“Cycling’s” title comes from the bike trips the two take around the rain-swept island, and on their rounds they get in touch with some of the colorful locals, including a fiery and beautiful Italian divorcee (Maya Sansa) who thinks all actors are narcissists, and a clueless porn starlet (Laurie Bordesoules) who drops by for some acting tips in what is arguably the pic’s hilarious highlight.

Although these subplots provide texture as well as the occasional excuse to leave the confines of the house and swap all the (always interesting) talk about Moliere for some outdoor pratfalls and light drama, they lack the intensity and diverting intertexuality of the rehearsal scenes. Still, they offer a reminder of Le Guay’s gift for non-dialogue-driven drama and humor.

The versatile Lambert (“Of Gods and Men”) has fun playing the soapy smallscreen surgeon, and is fine as the actor making an almost desperate bid for a more serious career, though he always remains somewhat at a disadvantage, since the material was clearly conceived around Luchini, who couldn’t ask for a better showcase for his talents.

The standout tech credit is Elisabeth Tavernier’s costume design, with Valence wearing trendy cuts and striking colors (especially whites and reds), while Serge seems more interested in keeping warm and blending in with the background, often clad in dark blues that match the cottage’s crumbling walls. This choice underscores Luchini’s ability to evoke a presence solely through words and body language, rather than with fancy attire or props.

Cycling With Moliere

France

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of a Les Films des Tournelles, Pathe, Appaloosa Developpement, France 2 Cinema production, in association with France Televisions, Canal Plus, Cine Plus. (International sales: Pathe Intl., Paris.) Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Directed, written by Philippe Le Guay, based on an idea by Fabrice Luchini.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Jean-Claude Larrieu; editor, Monica Coleman; music, Jorge Arriagada; production designer, Francoise Dupertuis; costume designer, Elisabeth Tavernier; sound (Dolby Digital), Emmanuel Croset; assistant director, Hubert Engammare; casting, Tatiana Vialle. Reviewed at UGC Les Halles, Paris, Jan. 23, 2013. (In Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Fabrice Luchini, Lambert Wilson, Maya Sansa, Laurie Bordesoules, Camille Japy, Annie Mercier, Ged Marlon, Stephane Wojtowicz. (French, Italian dialogue)

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