Philippe Le Guay’s Bicycling with Molière places a modern comedic spin on the titular French playwright’s seminal work The Misanthrope, with the film’s characters mirroring, to an extent, the rapport between the classic roles in Molière’s text. The retired actor and recluse Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini) is approached by fellow thesp Guathier Valence (Lambert Wilson), who seeks to lure him back to the stage in a production of The Misanthrope. Gauthier himself has an ulterior motive, as appearing in the play with Serge will restore some of the credibility he may have lost with his role as a doctor on a schlocky soap.
Even though Le Guay’s subtext about the past and modernity constantly being at odds is intriguing, the director presents this in a clunky, almost didactic fashion. As Gauthier is thoroughly entrenched in the modern world, not only in his grasp of technology, but in his style of acting, Serge is his Misanthrope-ian foil and opposite, representative of the classic—and therefore, in the film’s terms, “highest”—form of performance. Le Guay delves slightly into notions of the low- versus the highbrow with the presence of an aspiring actress, Zoe (Laurie Bordesoules), who happens to do porn on the side, rehearsing Molière with Serge and Gauthier; however, this quietly entertaining subplot, in which Le Guay shrewdly refuses judgment against Zoe, is sidelined for a rush of plot and character contrivances that seem only to benefit the insistence of a bloated climax that betrays the film’s chamber-piece modesty.
Le Guay even toys extensively with the image of the matinee idol, using Wilson’s generally self-absorbed Gauthier as the target for many unflattering jabs, though this comes across as desperate attempts to show Wilson is game enough to stomach such self-mockery. Some of these moments veer into light physical comedy, which are noticeably performed (and blocked) with a tip of the hat to Jacques Tati, though Wilson isn’t a deft enough comedian to pull off these slight homages. It should be noted that Serge is never the butt of a joke the way Gauthier is, suggesting that the classical actor is oddly immune to ridicule.
Le Guay certainly doesn’t cop out on the film’s ultimate denouement, which is draped in a deceptive melancholy, but the moralistic message that sporadically pops up throughout the film becomes clearly evident in the end: that newfangled technology or ideas will never trump their progenitors, and the reconciliation between the old and new is hopeless. To this effect, Le Guay and Serge seem like just another pair of Gran Torino-esque misers.