Sony Pictures Classics
My Best Friend
Naming NUmber Two
Nearly ten years ago, when Shakespeare in Love came along, I felt that the more the viewer knew about Will's life, the more enjoyable the picture would be. The screenwriters, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, of course knew that the hero of their passionate escapade was in fact a married man with a family back home-- and the viewer who also knew it could, like the authors, get an extra charge of chuckle and spree.
Now from France comes Moliere, written by Gregoire Vigneron and the director Laurent Tirard, in which the Shakespeare thought applies again. The uninformed viewer can certainly enjoy this picture, but a little knowledge of the major plays increases the fun. Tirard and Vigneron take a short, obscure period in their author-hero's life and fantasticate about it. To know a bit about Moliere makes this pleasant film even pleasanter.
The story begins in 1658, when Moliere and his theater company return to Paris. This company, the Illustrious Theater, has just completed a thirteen- year tour of France, which the members have used to burnish their abilities and which Moliere, their leading actor, has used to burnish his playwriting craft as well. Still, successful though he is with comedy, Moliere wants to write and play tragedy. The company tries to dissuade him.
After the dissent, the film flashes back thirteen years, to before the troupe left Paris. A young man named Jean-Baptiste Poquelin has helped to found an acting company that, with a finger-snap at modesty, calls itself the Illustrious Theater. It is 1645, and the leader of this theater is Poquelin, who now calls himself Moliere. This troupe, which mostly does comedy, is in debt, partly because of Moliere's ambitions to write and play tragedy. Suddenly he is thrown into debtors' prison. Mysteriously--this is where the screenplay's invention kicks in--his debts are paid and he is released. He doesn't know who did it or why. And now follow the several blank months in Moliere's chronicle, which Tirard and Vigneron proceed to fill.
A certain Monsieur Jourdain, very rich, had sent an aide to scout Moliere's acting. The aide admired what he saw, so Jourdain paid Moliere's debts and now invites the actor to stay at his grand estate, to teach Jourdain speech and projection. With this new manner, the bourgeois Jourdain hopes to impress a marquise whom he is mad about. The actor, constrained by circumstances, accepts the offer. The fact that Jourdain has a wife on the premises doesn't bother either of the men. Jourdain just asks Moliere to wear priest's garb so that his wife will think the actor is a tutor for their children.
The moment we hear the rich man's name and intent, we have a considerable clue about the film's design. A Monsieur Jourdain, rich and with social ambitions, is the center of The Bourgeois Gentleman, which Moliere wrote twenty- five years later. Apparently, the film's plan is to turn these generally unknown months into a seedbed of material for future plays. For another instance, Jourdain's wife encounters Moliere in the gardens and asks his name. Out of some subconscious wellspring he replies, "Monsieur Tartuffe"--a mock- priest who will wait decades for birth.
Moments from Tartuffe occur in "real life," however, as the film proceeds. Names of other Moliere characters and touches of his plots also appear, giving us a nice aesthetic tease between fiction and fact. One element of the film, though, is all its own, at least as it is colored here--Moliere's affair with Madame Jourdain--but even this affair has a later effect on the plays. All through the film Moliere encounters or foresees comic material for future works. It's a clever idea, amusingly dramatized, and all the better because the film doesn't--can't--jettison Moliere's obsession. He still loves tragedy, thinks it paramount, wants to write and perform it.
Tirard as director is clearly happy with his material and makes us so. Gorgeousness for the eye is easy in this story, and we get lots of it. One aspect is particularly right: the casting. To act well in classic comedy, which is what this film tries to mirror, is to move forward, constantly and smoothly, without often pausing to investigate situations but simply encountering them. Elegant extroversion is needed in the acting. Romain Duris as Moliere and especially Fabrice Luchini as Jourdain supply it, in full measure with full color. Duris, probably not incidentally, looks like one contemporary description of Moliere: "Neither too fat nor too thin; he was more tall than short, and he had a noble bearing and a handsome leg.... The various movements of his [heavy black brows] made his expression very comical.... Nature ... had refused him those external gifts so necessary ... for tragic roles."
A grateful bow, too, to the enchanting Laura Morante as Madame Jourdain.
A modern French comedy called My Best Friend is hardly classic, but in one way it comes closer to the classic than it may think. The screenplay, adapted by Jerome Tonnerre and the director Patrice Leconte from a story by Olivier Dazat, reminds one of some basic French gag farces of the past. A giant mechanism is set up, then tyrannically dominates. The characters don't live credible lives--they go through the machine and come out the other side altered in some way. Sample: a Parisian man has several mistresses, all airline stewardesses, so he carefully reckons their arrivals and departures; then a storm wrecks flight schedules and his own scheduling, etc. In this new film a Parisian antiques dealer is told by his partner and others that they don't really like him. The partner, a woman, bets him a Greek vase that he cannot produce a true friend within ten days.
Thus the machine is set up, and the protagonist enters it. He searches for a real friend, among people who know him well and less well. No luck. The film is to be film-length, but we know that we can't expect success for the first eighty minutes, so it burrows on. Watching it do its duty is something like watching acrobats--admirably graceful, but not greatly involving. We can nod approvingly, sometimes even smile.
We smile the most at the protagonist, because he is played by Daniel Auteuil, one of the best of screen actors. He does what he has to do with marvelous technical fluency while he manages to make us believe what he says. But there is an insuperable difficulty with the story. We cannot believe that nobody really likes Auteuil. Presumably the producers didn't want to give the character repellent qualities. They wanted him to play a remote man, yet still be Auteuil. So they were stuck; but not us.
This would be a good time to remember that Leconte a few years ago made The Widow of St. Pierre with Auteuil, a beautiful, profound drama. We can ascribe My Best Friend, casually amusing though it is, primarily to Leconte's and Auteuil's versatility.
A film from New Zealand, Naming Number Two, has a familiar storyline but an unintended jolt. Essentially this is one more family-party upheaval film: the members of a family come together for an anniversary or a birthday or some such, and instead of being a joyous occasion the gathering becomes a gallery of hurts and wrongs and jealousies. This is the first time I have seen such a story set in New Zealand. A matriarch living in a middle-class suburb of Auckland calls together her children--especially her grandchildren--to announce who will be her heir. The family members, of mixed colors, embrace; but the pleasant warmth soon boils over.
The jolt for us is that the grandmother, who was born on Fiji and came here with her (late) husband, is played by Ruby Dee. This made me sad. Ruby Dee is a premier American actress, a woman who, if she were white, would by now have had a career to rank her at the top of her profession--with a Lady Macbeth and a Hedda and a Medea, among others, behind her. (Among the too few Dee stage performances that I have seen, her Lena in the first American production of Fugard's Boesman and Lena was a particular treasure.) But this was not to be. Now in her eighties, Dee has been in more than ninety film and television roles, but so far as I know, she has never had a sufficiently good film role. The shock for me in this new picture was the fact that a major American actress had to go to New Zealand to find a leading role--had to go (I assume) not only because of her age but because she is black.
A further irony: she is not right for the part. The trouble is not that she lacks the accent that her family has; Dee could soon have acquired that. The trouble is her talent. Every other actor in the picture is aiming for and getting verisimilitude. Dee is too high for mere mimicry. Her speech is too thrilling, her voice too rich; even her gestures are too regal--not grandmotherly at all.
The writer-director Toa Fraser must have seen the stylistic difference between Dee and the others: either he couldn't or wouldn't alter it. Dee, too, must have seen the difference. Perhaps she justifies it with the point that her character was born in Fiji and thus speaks differently than her very New Zealand family. Or perhaps she just felt that, under the circumstances, the role ought to come to her instead of vice versa.
In any case, this film from the Antipodes includes an example of non- naturalistic excellence. Stylistically, this actress sounds and behaves as if Christopher Plummer had been cast to play her brother. Her performance doesn't fit the film, but it is the one element that distinguishes it.
By Stanley Kauffman