"Moliere" started as a French television endeavor, was dubbed into English and shown in England by the BBC, and now makes a further migration to American public television, beginning its five-part run tonight at 9 on Channel 26 (and at 8 on normal PBS stations that adhere to the national schedule).
It looks to be a fabulous production. In fact, it would behoove public television to make one of its rare sane decisions and subsequently schedule all five hours for one long night, arduous as that may sound.
The film is on the surface a biography of the great French playwright and wit Moliere, but the filmmaker Ariane Mnouchkine, has woven that life into a vivid, tumultuous, rich and earthy tapestry. In the first episode, she contrasts splendor and squator in 17th-century France as they might have affected the young Moliere.
Because it is sumptuous and rowdy, especially in its crowd scenes, the film has been compared to that rapturous breathtaker, "Children of Paradise," by Marcel Carne, the kind of movie that makes your head spin. There is a resemblance, but mnouchkine also has a deliberate, accumulative narrative style recalling Roberto Rossellini's "Rise of Louis XIV," during whose reign "Moliere" takes place.
On the other hand, if there are any other hands left, Mnouchkine shocks the first episode at midpoint with an inspired lyrical touch.A bawdy street theater performance is interrupted by the appearance of a man flying overhead in a primitive winged contraption that looks as if it sailed out of Da Vinci's window.
And in a flash, the child Moliere, looking up at the flying man, becomes a young adult, and the scene shifts to a university where Moliere learns that God made applecarts only so that people might have something to upset. Especially the French.
"Moliere" covers the actor and satirist's life starting at the age of 10, when he is played by the intelligently angelic looking child, Frederick Ladonne. After the man with the paper wings flies by, he turns into Philippe Caubere, who plays first Moliere the rebellious son, driving his father wild by choosing not to follow him into the upholstery business, and later Moliere the writer and performer.
The saga will conclude in its fifth hour when, after being both praised and banned by Louis XIV, Moliere dies on stage, in 1673, during the fourth performance of his last play, "Le Malade Imaginaire."
Bernard Zitzerman's photography has moments of purest derivative Rembrandt and a glowing consistency that makes the film grandly illusory. Filmmaker Mnouchkine spent four years on her epic, and this first hour of extravagant intimate pageantry suggests she has committed something extraordinary to film.
Only a filmmaking tradition shaped by Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and Abel Gance could have produced this "Moliere"; it is an immediate cultural event. It may even be a work of art, but not to worry. 'The Lathe of Heaven'
George Orr is not well. The things he dreams come true and change everyone's memory of the way life was before. One night he casually dreams away three-quarters of the world's population with devastating global plague.
"You had a bad one, George," says his psychiatrist as George wakes up.
"Oh my God!" says George. "I've just killed 6 billion people!"
Well -- you win some, you lose some. "The Lathe of Heaven," trailblazer for what is hoped will be a new series of "speculative fiction" dramas on public TV, totters quizzically from somber portentousness to black drollery. But let's encourage it by all means, because there are a few actual ideas floating around there somewhere.
"Heaven' will be shown at 10 tonight on Channel 26 and at 9 on normal, civilized public TV stations. At two hours, the film is entirely too long, and the adaptation of an Ursula K. LeGuin novel by Roger E. Swaybill and Diane English has its painfully obvious creaks and creases.
And yet it is at least literally dreamy, and actor Bruce Davison's performance as He Who Dreams, the afflicted Orr, surmounts the intentional obtuseness with which fictions of this sort are often written. Davison has a deftly matter-of-fact way of undercutting or exploiting absurdities of dialogue like George's description of one dream: "I was having a picnic on Mt. Hood with Genghis Khan and his umbrella leaked and then the sun came out."
LeGuin's story is a variation of sorts on "The Monkey's Paw." A particularly perverse psychiatrist whom Orr seeks for relief decides to exploit the young man's reality-altering dreams for what he thinks will be the world's benefit. However, he fails to phrase his hypnotic dream suggestions to Orr cleverly enough to avoid disaster.
So that when he tells Orr to dream of peace on earth, Orr dreams of peace on earth but a war of aliens on the moon. When someone gets George to dream the aliens will leave the moon, they leave it bound straight for Earth.
The drama is partly a chess match between the ultimate solipsist, George Orr, whose alterations of the universe are realized only by him, and the ultimate megalomaniac, that mischievous shrink, as clear a case of utopianism run as amuck as may be possible.
But the drama also attempts to be a Mobius strip riddle; Orr wonders if perhaps everyone else's dreams don't change reality the way he does, and the final dream suggestion given him by the psychiatrist is that he dream he no longer has the power to dream.
Unfortunately the producers and co-directors, David Loxton (head of WNET's ambitious TV lab) and Fred Barzyk, get lodged in a warp between the mundane and the fantastic -- too much clarity and the story might become a pat fable, too little and it wanders into the numbing realm of the artsy-smartsy.
"Lathe of Heaven" manages a compromise between those two extremes but compromises are rarely satisfying. The dreams are poorly visualized, and it's worth questioning the wisdom of doing this story on film, with literal if inadequate special effects, rather than having done it more simply, as an interior drama, on tape in a TV studio. Heaven knows we have enough movies made for television without PBS getting into the act.
Still, this is a serious and ambitious attempt to give viewers something substantial on which to gnaw. Pioneering underground filmmaker Ed Emshwiller was a "visual consultant" and the provocative musical score is by Michael Small. The psychiatrist is over-played by relentless over-actor Kevin Conway (who chewed enough scenery in PBS's "Scarlet Letter" to set a record) and every one of his line readings is wrong as rain.