In the 1960s the French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine and her company, Theatre du Soleil, “squatted” in an abandoned shell factory built in Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris, by Napoleon. Among the astonishing new works they developed was the life of Moliere, later made into a five hour series for French TV. I was lucky enough to buy a copy in 2007 when I was in Paris, and it remains the prize of my video shelf.
“Moliere” – not to be confused with the 2006 film, delightful but much less inspired – captures the life and times of the great playwright and comedian, reveling in spectacularly detailed scenes of the vagabond company touring the French provinces for seventeen years, honing their craft, and returning to Paris as the triumphant company of Louis XIV. Each scene is luxurious in detail, from the opening school lessons above a pig stable taught by a dissolute Jesuit, to the forced marriage of a drunken and beribboned young girl to a withered and ancient nobleman, to the parade of golden canal boats, gifts of the Veneitan prince, across the snow-covered mountains to float in the fountains of Versailles. It is a great film about great theater.
Mnouchkine, a true genius, has, of course, created many powerful and internationally acclaimed works of theater since “Moliere”. But for me it will always remain the pinnacle of biographical art, capturing both the essence and the breadth of our greatest “comedien” in a work of great love.
I asked my old Notre Dame friend, George Arkedis, who lived in Versailles for several years with his lovely wife and fellow student traveler Barbara, what made the French “tick”. He said, “They do things big. They fail big, but they succeed big. They aren’t afraid to try huge endeavors.” If you think about Louis XIV, Versailles, the 1789 Revolution, Napoleon, the statue “Liberty”, the Tour Eiffel, universal health care, you get an understanding of what he means. The two hour lunch at the cafe is perhaps more important to my life than the sales call I’ll make after. A slice of foie gras on excellent bread with a glass of wine and a bowl of leek soup is perhaps more important to my life than a new car. Vive la France! Vive la difference!