Sarcastically dismissing pretty much all of Western literature in The Breakfast Club, Bender tells Claire that “Molay really pumps my ’nads.” He’s being a dick, but his attitude isn’t that uncommon, and a movie called Bicycling With Molière isn’t likely to inspire much ’nad-pumping in the American populace. While the film isn’t a period piece, and Molière isn’t a character in it (much less a cyclist), his classic play The Misanthrope, first performed in 1666, plays a sizable role, with a great deal of screen time devoted to the rehearsal of key scenes between its two principal male characters, Alceste and Philinte. (The original French title was Alceste Á Bicyclette, or Alceste By Bicycle, which is more accurate but less identifiable for an American audience.) All the same, high culture this decidedly isn’t. Mostly, it’s just a vehicle for two terrific actors to snipe at each other and poke some mild fun at their own profession—a comedy that frequently crosses the line separating breezy from flimsy, to be marginally enjoyed and then completely forgotten.
The terrific actors in question are Fabrice Luchini and Lambert Wilson, who have lengthy associations with legendary Nouvelle Vague directors Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais, respectively. As the film begins, Gauthier Valence (Wilson), an actor whose career has recently taken off thanks to a starring role on a dopey-looking TV show on which he plays a House-like super-doctor, travels to the country in an effort to persuade his old friend and colleague Serge Tanneur (Luchini) to appear in a stage production of The Misanthrope. Though Serge retired some years earlier, the mention of Molière’s play gets his attention, and he reluctantly agrees to spend some time rehearsing—in his own house—with the two friends alternating the roles of Alceste (The Misanthrope’s caustic title character) and Philinte (a much less exciting part). Meanwhile, both men become romantically entangled with an Italian neighbor of Serge’s, Francesca (Maya Sansa), who claims to hate actors but quickly grows fond of Gauthier and Serge, causing more friction.
Not much comes of this subplot, and another one, involving a young local woman (Laurie Bordesoules) who wants to become a porn star and inexplicably seeks out acting tips from Gauthier, confirms the general sense that women are useless appendages in this film’s world. The comedy, too, is often surprisingly broad, with the sort of tired gags usually found in Adam Sandler films: A house Gauthier borrows for the rehearsal period has a jacuzzi with “hilariously” strong jets, for example, and there are two—two!—scenes in which someone swerves to avoid an oncoming car and crashes his bicycle into the river, then emerges from the water sputtering with anger. Only the prickly chemistry between Luchini and Wilson distinguishes this genial time-waster in any way; watching them fight over who makes the better Alceste, and dig into some of Molière’s challenging verse (which is ill served by a non-rhyming English translation in the subtitles), is pleasurable enough to make one wish that they had a better vehicle.