Backstage at Comedie Francaise

By Pressley, Nelson | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Backstage at Comedie Francaise


Pressley, Nelson, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman sticks to his famous "fly on the wall" approach in "La Comedie Francaise ou L'Amour Joue," the four-hour documentary that airs tonight on PBS' WETA-TV and Thursday on Maryland Public Television.

The Comedie Francaise, the acting company that Louis XIV mandated seven years after Moliere died, endures as one of the world's great theaters. The film is a guided tour of the company in the sense that Mr. Wiseman shows you what he wants you to see. And he seems to want to show you everything: rehearsals, administrative meetings, costume fittings, wig making, set building, ticket buying, whole scenes in performance, even the Paris traffic. As a document of the life of an institutional theater, "La Comedie Francaise ou L'Amour Joue" is comprehensive.

Yet the film is also an unguided tour, insofar as the Wiseman style forbids narration or other methods of letting you know just what you're watching or who you're listening to at any given moment. All of the observed conversations and performances are subtitled, of course, but speakers are never identified. You have to pick up, on the fly, who everyone is and what their relationships are.

And American viewers who aren't familiar with the classic French repertoire will probably just be getting their bearing with the scene work and discussions of Marivaux's "Double Inconstance" when suddenly people start talking about Moliere. They're doing "Don Juan," too? Oh . . . neat. The bedroom farce we see performed in front of an audience is Feydeau's "Occupe-toi d'Amelie," and that Greek-looking tragedy seen in rehearsal near the end is Racine's "La Thebiade." (All plays and players are identified in the final credits.)

Still, it's easy enough to muddle through, provided that you're the sort of person who would be interested in a 15-minute discussion about the place of God in Moliere's works and why "socio-democratic" post-World War II readings "don't hold up." In fact, the detail that Mr. Wiseman allows is precisely what makes this film worthwhile.

In between rehearsals, performances and meetings - all of which hold their own fascination - Mr. Wiseman silently observes actors and technicians at work. An actor rehearses a speech alone on the stage, repeating a rough spot until he's got it cold. In the costume shop, lace is painstakingly stitched to a hat. …

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