“Believe only what you see,” admonishes the classical French dramatist Pierre Corneille toward the end of his play “L’illusion Comique,” generally translated as “The Theatrical Illusion.” In Mathieu Amalric’s terrific adaptation, rendered as “The Screen Illusion,” the helmer uses the line as a challenge and a tease, expertly opening up Corneille’s world of warring nobles, love triangles and deadly jealousies through a creative modernization that judiciously trims the play yet preserves its melodic verse. Made for TV, and first broadcast in France last December, this delightful pic could easily make the leap to art screens worldwide.
“The Screen Illusion” is the third in a series commissioned by the Comedie Francaise in which a director adapts a piece in the Comedie repertoire to the smallscreen (earlier helmers were Claude Mouriras, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau). There are three rules: no additional words, use only thesps who’ve played the parts onstage, and film in locations away from the theater in no more than 12 days. Amalric’s name should provide the boost needed to get offshore attention, which could then hopefully foster a trend of sparkling cinematic presentations of classical plays beyond those signed by Mr. Shakespeare. If Met Opera productions are so popular, why not the Comedie Francaise?
With shifts in tone and temporality, Corneille self-consciously used the magic of stagecraft in a revolutionary way; Amalric cleverly updates the settings to the present and near-future in a way that feels neither forced nor improbable. The playwright’s wizard Alcandre (Herve Pierre) becomes a hotel concierge and private detective, and his cave is now the video surveillance room in the hotel’s bowels. He’s been hired by Pridamante (Alain Lenglet) to find wayward son Clindor (Loic Corbery).
Clindor is employed by Matamore (Denis Podalydes), the man behind boffo vidgame “Modern Warfare 2” — a perfect way for Amalric to maintain Corneille’s talk of battles and make it up-to-date and sensible. While Matamore boasts of his passion for Isabelle (Suliane Brahim), her father Geronte (Jean-Baptiste Malartre) is preparing to marry her to Adraste (Adrien Gamba-Gontard). However, the real romance is between Isabelle and Clindor. Eager to throw a wrench in the works is Lyse (Julie Sicard), herself in love with Clindor and willing to do anything to ensure her rival doesn’t get him.
As to be expected from a 17-century play written in alexandrine couplets, the plot is labyrinthine and the characters alternately bellicose and romantic. By cutting down most of the subplots, Amalric streamlines the story and makes the narrative easy to follow without simplifying Corneille’s ideas. A sequence set in a disco is the only scene that doesn’t work, suffering from distractions of sound, light and dancing that weaken the drama. Otherwise, the helmer, fresh from shooting “On Tour,” keeps the locales believable and surprisingly consistent with the ravishing text.
For the last five or so decades, the hallowed thesps of the Comedie Francaise have largely steered clear of the bigscreen, making only occasional forays into film acting. If most of the cast here, apart from Podalydes, will be unfamiliar to non-Parisians, one hopes “The Screen Illusion” can change that. Amalric has brought out a vibrant non-theatricality in all, especially the superb Sicard and the dashing Corbery, who share a scene of breathtaking intensity.
English subtitles are impressive, providing clarity along with artistry without attempting to replicate the rhyming scheme. Attentive listeners, whether French-speaking or not, should still be able to enjoy the melodies of Corneille’s language. Isabelle Ravazet’s spirited lensing has a lightness and breeziness that suits Amalric’s vision.