From Laurel and Hardy to Felix Unger and Jack Klugman to the ladies of “The Heat,” the odd-couple formula has generated untold hours of entertainment. You can add Gauthier and Serge to the list; they’re the main characters in Philippe Le Guay’s delightful “Bicycling With Molière,” which is both about Molière’s play “The Misanthrope” and a loose adaptation of the satire.
Expertly coiffed and Frenchly scarved, Gauthier Valance (Lambert Wilson) looks like the type of man who usually gets what he wants. As the star of “Dr. Morange,” the fictitious hit television show about a MacGyver-like surgeon, he’s the Gallic equivalent of Mark Harmon from “NCIS.” Everyone’s mother loves him. Unfortunately for Gauthier, Serge (Fabrice Luchini) is no one’s mother.
The retired actor has exiled himself to the windy and soggy Isle of Ré. Gauthier travels there, hoping to persuade Serge to play Philinte in a stage adaptation of “The Misanthrope.” At first Serge flat-out refuses, and then he waffles, clearly coveting the starring role of Alceste, which Gauthier has reserved for himself. So the two strike a deal. Serge tells Gauthier to stay on the island for a few days so they can rehearse together, alternating roles. If it seems like they might create Molière magic, Serge will take a break from retirement. If not, Gauthier can return to the big city and Serge will get back to painting female nudes while living in his dilapidated manse with a malfunctioning septic system.
Luchini and Wilson are fantastic in their roles, creating a rapport that’s pleasingly argumentative but (almost) never mean. They randomly launch into dialogue from the play the way a polyglot might slip in and out of various languages, sometimes while riding bikes around the island (hence the title).
At first it seems as if Serge is a no-brainer for the title character, given his mercurial personality and singular moral code. Gauthier, seemingly harmless, also appears better suited to the role of the more agreeable Philinte. But as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that both men exhibit elements of both characters. Serge may push people away, but he’s always sad to see them go. And beneath Gauthier’s accommodating exterior lies a bit of volcanic activity.
Meanwhile, a parade of pleasant characters drift in and out of the two men’s lives, from an opinionated recent divorcee to an aspiring porn star seeking acting tips. And although there are some farcical moments, there’s also a naturalism to the proceedings. At one point, Gauthier punches someone and immediately grabs his hand in agony, which is both realistic and funny.
It’s after this demoralizing incident that Gauthier returns to a particularly poignant moment in the play and delivers the scene in a completely new way. Since the characters rehearse the same lines over and over, the audience gets to see how the meaning changes based on what the men have recently experienced.
This may be a buddy comedy on its surface, but “Bicycling With Molière” also gives some insight into the way art imitates life, and also the way life informs art.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At tk. At Cinema Arts Theatres and West End Cinema. Contains strong language, including sexually frank discussions. In French with subtitles. 104 minutes.