Frederick Wiseman’s epic-length study of the legendary French theatrical troupe La Comedie Francaise may be the first film the documentarian has done that could reasonably be called an audience pleaser. While it raises some interesting and pointed questions about his documentary style, this is a work that should delight Francophones and Francophiles. It begins its European tour where commercial bookings may be a distinct possibility at the Venice Film Festival. Stateside, audiences will get to see it Sept. 1 on PBS.
For his 29th docu, Wiseman continues in the form he has helped pioneer: no narration, no talking heads, just point the camera and record. Of course it involves more than that, or he would not turn up the wealth of material he has here, but the goal is to limit interpretation to the selection of what to film and how to edit the pieces together.
Filming in the winter of 1994-95, Wiseman shows the actors preparing the four plays of their theatrical season, from rehearsals to performance. We get a limited view of the backstage world, focusing primarily on the actors and administrators. There are glimpses of costumers, stagehands, electricians, etc., working, while we get extended scenes of the actors arguing, celebrating, performing, meeting and commemorating. At one point the electricians are threatening a strike, but we know this only from hearing the administrators discuss it.
Wiseman uncovers some fascinating material. In one extended scene, actor Roland Bertin argues over a phrase in Moliere’s “Don Juan” and whether “tout de meme” (“just the same”) would have the same meaning in the 17th century that it has today. Bertin is marvelous arguing his view, and one has to wonder how the thesps ever make it to the stage if they give the scripts such painstaking scrutiny. (We later see Bertin in a scene from the performance.)
Other vignettes include a government official trying to get an exception to the limit on the number of tickets one can buy, publicists discussing how to deal with customer complaints about their more avant-garde undertakings, and a meeting of actors demanding dental plans and free telephones for retirees. Sometimes Wiseman strikes gold: At the 100th birthday celebration of the late Madame Saillard, the former actress sits slumped in her seat, barely aware as some local official makes a ponderous statement. Then Catherine Samie, a senior member of the current cast, gets up to speak and Saillard comes to life as the two reminisce about Saillard’s roles from half a century before.
Wiseman also offers us extended rehearsal and performance scenes, not only of “Don Juan” but of Feydeau’s “Occupe-toi d’Amelie” and Marivaux’s “La Double Inconstance.” As the first film to record La Comedie Francaise at work like this , it is a treasure trove. This is a film that students of La Comedie Francaise, as well as of theater in general, will study for years to come.
The problem, as always, is the lack of context. Wiseman studiously declines to provide any interpretation of what he presents, and the film is entirely in French, necessitating subtitles for non-Gallic auds.
There are scenes in which the simplest provision of context would make a crucial difference. For example, at the film’s start and finish Wiseman shows the entire company onstage standing around a bust. One at a time the actors step forward and utter some witticism. What does it mean? What’s going on? It turns out (if one reads the PBS press release) that this is how the troupe celebrates Moliere’s birthday. A single title indicating what is going on would allow the viewer to make sense of this otherwise incomprehensible scene.
In another scene a business meeting is taking place in which people are up for election as societaires. Is this a union election? An honorary society? No, again according to the press release, this is the election of actors to permanent tenure with La Comedie Francaise. If only viewers had this little scrap of information, the scene would have some meaning.
Pic’s length, subtitles and lack of the most rudimentary explanatory material will make it a hard sell outside public television, festivals and special bookings. On the other hand, unlike in his other films, Wiseman here is blessed with a “cast” composed largely of actors. Even offstage they know how to play to an audience, and they make the film much more entertaining than the average documentary.
“La Comedie Francaise” is Wiseman working at the top of his form even as he expands his reach by way of subject matter. Succeeding on many levels, it may also prove to be his most accessible project to date.