Wishing to re-watch Ariane Mnouchkine’s rightly famous film, 1978 film Molière, I accidentally bought a copy of Laurent Tirard’s rather less well known 2007 film: Molière. Months later, a Friday evening, back home from Paris, I put the DVD in the machine and stretched out on my couch, prepared to lose myself in film A, only to find myself watching this alien film B. Which turns out, and notwithstanding some uninspired reviews, to be fabulous, one of the greatest films about acting that I have been privileged to see. (Acting as a profession and as an essential part of human life.)
The film contains—or perhaps was built around—half a dozen or more tours de force. There is, for example, a scene to recall or rival Romeo & Juliet: two prospective lovers simultaneously act out in front of mirrors, in adjoining but separated rooms, the conversation they are hoping soon to have with one another. (When they meet for a secret tryst.)
The masterpiece is a scene near the end in which the actor Fabrice Luchini, whose character is supposed to be, among other things, a bad actor, first pretends to be someone he is not (a woman) and then strips off his disguise (face mask and “heart mask”) to speak from the heart of how his spectators’ laughter and ridicule has hurt him. Although it requires all the preceding character (and societal) development to set this scene up, it might be said that even just for this scene alone the movie deserves a place in the pantheon.
The film’s most famous scene, however, would seem to be the one in which the young Molière seeks to teach the bad actor, a rich bourgeois (Luchini again) how to act, and this by teaching him how to portray a horse. First Luchini makes a wonderful, if ridiculous attempt, but soon we discover that we are supposed to read this as a great actor portraying a bad actor engaging in not quite great acting (!). We come to this conclusion because the Molière character (played by Romain Duris) criticizes his student. The bourgeois has played a man playing a horse, or playing some general idea of horseness. A good actor, by contrast, would not play a horse but become one, and thus he would not become anything general, but a specific horse, with a specific personality.
Imagine the challenge for Duris! He has to follow a great piece of acting (Luchini brilliantly pretending to be a bad actor and offering a horse, or horseness, that is itself a delight). Duris’s challenge is to surpass this. In a sense he fails, or could not succeed, because a great actor playing a bad actor will always trump a great actor simply playing a great actor. (Click for the video clip, with English subtitles. The stills in this post are both taken from the clip.)
I would add to this only the following three points:
(1) I would be curious to hear readers’ suggestions of other great films about acting. Ettore Scola’s Le Bal leaps to mind. And Groundhog Day (actors doing the same scene over and over again). Other films? I am not talking about films in which the acting is great (e.g. Un air de famille), but great films about acting. (Interestingly, three of the films now “on the table”—Molière, Le Bal, and Un air de famille—are based in the theater, on staged plays.)
(2) I would caution non-francophone movie buffs that Molière cannot be as good for those for whom the French is too foreign. The movie is not only about acting, but also about Molière, and thus about the language of Molière. Indeed Tirard cleverly stitched together the script from the texts of several different Molière plays. Molière has of course been translated, and I can imagine that there have been great translations, as there have been, for example, of Shakespeare. But Molière or Shakespeare translated is not Molière or Shakespeare.
(3) My own subtitle would not read, “Acting is a profession of sensitivity, not of appearances.” It would read: Acting is a profession of feeling, not of appearances. Or further: Actors are not striving to appear to be one thing or another, but to feel. It is in this sense that Tirard’s Molière speaks powerfully about how we are all actors, struggling to find ways to strip off our disguises so that we can feel and be felt.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.
Click for pdf of Molière (one of the films)
Every film is a film about acting, just as every poem contains its own comment on poetics. But maybe some films are about acting more than others. Certainly “Children of Paradise” is a wonderful film, and maybe even a wonderful film about acting. I would love to read what William Eaton has to say about it in that regard.