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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.