French films for A level students: 2: Review of Le Misanthrope, Comédie Française, 1977

Films for French A level students: 2: Review of Le Misanthrope, Comédie Française, 1977

In the next blog in our series on French films at A Level, an Oxford Open Learning tutor and distance learning course writer reviews the 1977 Comédie Française film Le Misanthrope, directed by Jean-Paul Carrère.

Although this DVD was made thirty years ago, it is still one of the best performances of Le Misanthrope. Staged by the Comédie Française, it is an assured and entertaining interpretation. Recently there has been a trend to set the play in modern times but this company, who are as prestigious in France as our Royal Shakespeare Company, sticks to tradition and the 17th century. The diction of the actors is clear and easy to follow which is an advantage for the student of French, and even though the performances are more theatrical than is now the fashion, this does not detract from the enjoyment of some fine acting. To watch the play you are studying is to deepen your appreciation. You experience the work as you were meant to, as a performance. You can sit back and wrestle with the nuances of the plot and laugh at the comic moments, while admiring the beautiful costumes and France’s finest actors. It is the best way of getting to grips with Le Misanthrope.

A word of warning – there are no subtitles in English or French, but we would advise students to follow the play, certainly at first viewing, with the French (or English) text in front of them. It is easier than you might think to follow the plot.

This play is one of the most difficult to perform. The subject is ‘serious’ but it is never treated in a serious way. Alceste, the ‘misanthropist’ of the title, denounces the hypocrisy, cowardice and dishonesty of the court and high society. Nevertheless he loves the flawed Célimène, a young and beautiful widow who chooses to leave her many suitors dangling in order to preserve her liberty, even though she really prefers Alceste to the others. Alceste refuses to join in the games they play, in particular the universal flattery. ‘Sur quelque preference une estime se fonde, Et c’est n’estimer rien qu’estimer tout le monde.’ He wants to persuade this young woman to live honestly by choosing one suitor.

However despite his claims L’ami du genre humain n’est point du tout mon fait’ Alceste is as susceptible to the same human foibles as everyone else. He loves a woman whose behaviour is far from virtuous. One suspects he secretly enjoys her bitchy gossip. Célimène certainly understands this contradiction between his principles and his passion. Her sensitive appreciation of those around her offsets her bad behaviour with regard to her suitors and others. She is very desirable and attractive but not willing to forgo the pleasures of being admired by putting an end to speculation. However, her unfair and unkind behaviour ultimately seals her fate. Her suitors lose patience with her and expose her as a malicious gossip. She is rejected by all save Alceste. However his demand that she follow him into a life isolated from the rest of society proves to be too much for this lively young woman, and she turns down his offer.

It is Philinte who points out that living by reason alone (an ‘old-fashioned virtue) demands too much of modern humankind. Perhaps this is the same today?

‘La parfaite raison fuit toute extrémité,
Et veut que l’on soit sage avec sobriété.
Cette grande raideur des vertus des vieux âgesHeurte trop notre siècle et les communs usages;
Elle veut aux mortels trop de perfection:
Il faut fléchir au temps sans obstination;
Et c’est une folie à nulle autre seconde
De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde.
(…) Je prends tout doucement les hommes comme ils sont,
J’accoutume mon âme à souffrir ce qu’ils font;
Et je crois qu’à la cour, de même qu’à la ville,
Mon flegme est philosophe autant que votre bile.

(Act 1, Scene 1)

In this version Georges Descrières is rather old for the main part, but he nevertheless gives Alceste anger and energy. Célimène played by Béatrice Agenin portrays the coquette with charm and vivacity. She carries the play with her naturalness, and lights up every scene she is in. We should also mention the minor characters; the unforgettable slapstick of the two marquis, Clitandre and Acaste, Oronte the would-be poet who gives a wonderful comic performance, and the stand-off between Célimène and the prudish Arsinoë, who loves Alceste in vain. Eliante and Philinte provide a secondary and ultimately happier love interest.

We would recommend that you obtain a copy of this DVD, which you can do using the link to below, in order to appreciate fully this complex play. You can use an ordinary credit card on the site to pay in euros.

Alison Fisher

Tutor and course-writer (French A level)

To find out more about studying French at A Level or at IGCSE visit the Oxford Open Learning website for more details, or the Oxford Home Schooling website for under 18s.

Or you can contact a student adviser to discuss your home study options.

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