Molière Television, January 1980
The closing passage of Molière, a four-and-a-quarter-hour film biography, contains one of the more remarkable extended metaphors I have seen in a motion picture.
Molière, having collapsed on stage during a performance of Le Malade Imaginaire (actually he did not, but for the purposes of poetry the legend is too good to be now repaired), is carried up an interminable staircase on the shoulders of his troupe, blood from a hemorrhage of the lungs staining his white shirt, gruesome complement to the whitened mask of his face, in which the eyes burn with an expiring brilliance. The refrain of an oratorio by Purcell—its burden the freezing and loss of breath that foretells the end—accompanies the ascending cortege and it is soon apparent that the event has passed over into the figurative; the staircase is no longer literal, the moving figures are blurred, time is distended. By means of what I shall call here a treadmill shot, the bearers of the dying Molière are mounting but not advancing, and the lustrous eyes in the chalk face of their master, swaying aloft, are conjuring fragments from his foreshortened memory. Suddenly the whole fantastic progression is cut off, with a shift of camera perspective: there is nobody and nothing in view save an empty staircase, as the film ends.
It would be gratifying to report that the entire film is as breathtakingly inventive as this last harrowing liaison with eternity and that it was designed throughout in obedience to the terminal vision. Such is not the case. When I saw the film the first time I came away with the belief that Mlle. Ariane Mnouchkine’s real subject had been the pathos of mortality. After a second viewing I began to suspect that I had provided the unity myself and that in the actual composition the motif was more fortuitous than planned.
Seeing Molière yet again in the five-part “international version” presented on television—dubbed into English for the fearful or oddly supplied with its original language by a parallel dialogue on the radio!—I am reinforced in my conviction that this is conspicuously a work of episodical inspiration. (At her press conference last autumn, Miss Mnouchkine insisted that she had not conceived her film as a televised production!). At week-apart intervals of a TV showing the excitement or the fun or the historical saturation may well outweigh, for the exclusively TV spectator, more austere considerations of thematic consistency. In a sense, I hope this is the case, for I am not eager to downgrade, by implication, the director’s talent for the scenic art of cinema (this is her first full-fledged effort at film making). Nonetheless, since Miss Mnouchkine undertook to relate the character of a renowned artist to the hubbub of his age, she did thereby raise questions which she has somewhat glibly answered: these will necessarily be less visible to the once-a-week watcher who is paying closer attention to the glamor of the moment.
Death and destruction are certainly prevalent among the episodes of the scenario and it may be that since the critical mind demands order it selects those that subscribe to a consistent scheme. At the beginning of the film, Molière, an unnamed, wordless man with a cough, is glimpsed at the far end of a dark corridor, donning the shirt that will receive the discharge of his blood after the performance to which he is on his way. Following the credits, the narrative returns to Molière (not then so named), aged ten. From there on his progress from Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, son of a tapestry maker, to leading dramatist of his age is punctuated by the deaths of others. A bowlful of blood, tossed into the yard, announces his mother’s death. Students are mowed down by cavalry when they protest against the prohibition of carnival. A scarlet-robed dignitary paces a blue-shadowed floor as the death of the “late king” (Louis XIII) is announced, while the new boy-monarch is carried to his coronation, dressed in a sumptuous fleurs-de-lis costume. In a remote province a tribe of starving peasants begs Molière’s traveling players for bread; when refused it, they kill and eat the company’s horses. And notably a musician hired by enemies of Molière (now a reigning favorite at court) who improvises a ballad insinuating that the playwright is a cuckold includes in his song the line, “I am old, I am out of breath, I am dying,” which virtually rehearses the Purcell refrain at the end.
Even so, it is sensible to reflect that death is a commonplace in the chronology of anyone’s life. Recurrence, in a film, is not identical with melody. When one has noted all the other incidents and crises that take place in this cinematic resumé of Molière’s span, one has to acknowledge that several motifs are as pressing (the weight of paternal authority, latent revolution, the conflict between farce and tragedy) and that in fact the very emphasis on death suggested by the return of the ending to the beginning is a misleading strategy on the part of the director. Molière, the historical personage, is not, in my reading of him, possessed with death; nor, in the film, does he ever allude to it. His plays don’t concern themselves with the transience of life; the tragic brevity of man’s estate was not a leading idea of Louis XIV’s France, as it had been in Elizabethan England and would be again with the onset of Romanticism. Miss Mnouchkine may have become so enamored with a striking cinematic image that she was diverted from the more plausible preoccupations of Molière. What those may have been is not easy to divine from the characterization imposed on him in this dazzling but often evasive film.
Philippe Caubère, an accomplished mime and a forthright dramatic actor, carries conviction as someone of that era; if he doesn’t seem to be the man, Molière, the fault must lie in the script, in the conception. There are two elements which, when I look back on the experience, I find wanting in this movie, and I doubt that they are independent of each other: one is Molière’s achieved relationship to the seventeenth-century theater he transformed; the other is the quality of his relationships with women.
We do not expect a motion picture to be a literary thesis, photographed, but since there is so much of a crucial nature which Mnouchkine gets into her panorama of seventeenth-century France (the mud and the wind, the ferocious poverty and the tyranny of privilege, the toadying, the religious bigotry, the inching advance of “pure reason”) we might expect a closer understanding, which we never acquire, of how the Molière of the film—intransigent, hot-tempered, argumentative, masterfully histrionic and, toward the close, moody and dictatorial—could have created those plays which, mimetic as they may be, are distinguished above all by a detachment so scrupulous as to be called clinical. How, among other things, did he come by his familiarity with the families of the haute bourgeoisie which again and again he depicted in plays (of which, incidentally, we never hear a line)? How did the Goncourt brothers manage to dismiss Molière for having diverted the heroic drama into a hopelessly bourgeois morality, if we are shown throughout a man who is rebelling against bourgeois morality, whose way of life is bohemian, who is never seen in the company of anyone except his fellow actors or, at arm’s length, in the vicinity of the king’s minions?
The young Molière is pictured at one point as an ardent disciple of Descartes, who in a brief showing regrets modestly that he has not been able to shed sufficient light on the shadows he has stirred up. We are not, I think, readily convinced that this extroverted malcontent from backstage cares very much for the illuminations of esprit de géométrie. In short, there are not five minutes I can recall that hint of anything intellectual in the makeup of the man who wrote—however much more than this they are!—some of the most unsparing intellectual mockeries in the drama before Shaw.
At the same time, Molière’s domestic life is bypassed in rather bewildering vignettes, either farcical or too fleeting to reveal any depths he may have been concealing. His simultaneous affairs with Madeleine Béjart and two other actresses in his company are represented as comic interludes in a farce which consort oddly with those authentic moments later in the story when he is remorseful and patently disturbed by the illness and death of his old flame, Madeleine. Excepting those moments the man, Molière, was, in affairs of the heart—if you believe this movie—an insouciant tomcat. One critic of the film has objected that in it Molière marries the daughter of his mistress, whereas he had always heard that Armande was the sister of Madeleine. I don’t know where he had always heard it but clearly he didn’t extend his research. The reason for confusion in biographical reports is that there seems to be ample evidence for presuming that Armande could have been Molière’s own daughter by Madeleine Béjart, a scandal not, so far as I know, conclusively affirmed or relegated by scholarship.
Miss Mnouchkine was under no obligation to interpret the kinship in these terms. Disregarding the possibility of incest, however, the alliance remains within the territory of the frisson, since Armande was the daughter of Molière’s discarded mistress and this alone should be sufficient to give the attraction a certain piquancy—to say the least—a special flavor of the illicit. This is not conveyed; in fact, no relationship is explored. All we see in the film is Molière’s sudden concupiscent recognition, at table, that the girl “Menou” has become overnight the desirable woman, Armande. Without more ado he is married to her; with no closeup preambles to their incompatibility we next learn, after a jump of years, that Armande is erring from bed to bed.
As for the absence in this film of the crowning Molière theater, aside from extracts performed solo by the spirited M. Caubère, Ariane Mnouchkine has explained that she did not want to include an anthology of acts from Molière’s best-known works for fear of returning to the status of photographed drama. It sounds wise, yet she need not have been quite so unsparing. I deduce that the firmer reason was that she simply did not have actors and actresses who could have performed as skillfully as Caubère. The omissions are serious. One episode in the film, stunningly photographed in indigos and blacks, introduces a distressed and defiant young beauty being married off to a freakish ruin who looks to be about ninety. To those in the know, it is apparent that this ceremony must have inspired Molière (presumably a witness) to write Le Mariage Forcé. Spectators unfamiliar with Molière’s drama will very likely find themselves baffled by the unexplained interpolation. On another occasion two women congratulate Molière, with a touch of ruefulness, for his astute dissection of their mannerisms in Les Précieuses Ridicules. Would it not have been appropriate to predicate their compliments with a fan-flapping exchange from that very play?
It may sound as if I am steadily retracting the praise with which I began this review. That is not my intention. I still believe the film, quite apart from the modified character given it by the TV presentation, to have been unique among those shown at the Lincoln Center Festival and intrinsically an uncommon, if not unflawed, exercise in flexible cinematic style. But in retrospect I find that the foot-by-foot fascination with which I followed the film does not, when it replays in memory, satisfy my demand for a coherent conception of the nominal subject. And comparison is a harsh master. Theme, setting, and biography seldom coalesce fully as they do in other films of a proximate length and comparable nature. There is nothing here, for instance, of the seamless, inexorable continuity of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in which every encounter contributes to the inference that character is fate, so that the final duel in the granary (invented by Kubrick—it’s not in Thackeray) is almost the predictable and welcome consequence whereby society, in the person of the anti-hero’s sneering stepson, avenges itself for Lyndon’s untiring abuses. Nor is there anything like the fanatical consistency with which Peter Watkins in his four-and-a-half-hour TV film (drastically cut for cinema), Edvard Munch, fused the Freudian and Marxist principles in a relentless montage of personal creative agony and the subterranean changes overtaking the fin-de-siècle society of northern Europe.
Molière’s triumph, in the history of culture, was that of wit (which is mind) over the villainies and absurdities of temperamental aberration confirmed by social distortion. Yet the far stronger impression left with this critic by Mnouchkine’s film is the relative absence of mind, the defeated expenditure of talent in a heartless age, and the predominance, after all, of that last staircase: the decanting blood, the skull beneath the chalk-white face—and silence.