Molinaro's splendid film of the multi-faceted author of "The Barber of Seville" is fascinating.
By Mary Dickson
FEBRUARY 23, 1998: What Milos Forman's Amadeus did for Mozart, Edouard Molinaro's lively and elegantly executed Beaumarchais the Scoundrel does for French writer Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the man known primarily for his classic plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
The lavish, lushly costumed, big-budget period piece starring some of the great stars of French cinema has been one of France's biggest hits. Full of great drama, comedy, wit and verbal virtuosity, it's a lively account of a remarkable man. Based on an unpublished play by renowned French playwright/actor/director Sacha Guitry, the film covers Beaumarchais' colorful life through the pre-revolutionary decade of 1774-1784.
A writer who began as a watchmaker, Beaumarchais was both a pretender to, and an outspoken critic of, the French ruling class, which put him at odds with censors, placed him on shaky political terrain, and landed him in jail on several occasions. He was arrested for both of his plays.
He was not only a satirist, but a notorious womanizer, an inventor, a reformist, an unscrupulous businessman, a master spy, an arms runner for the American Revolution, and a hero of the French people. His writing, in fact, helped set the stage for the French Revolution.
Molinaro's splendid film about the exploits of this multi-faceted man is as fascinating from a historical perspective as it is from a dramatic one. The director of La Cage aux Folles brings a lighter touch to this history without making light of it. His crisp direction, enhanced by a vibrant script, gives the film and its subject a spirited playfulness that keeps it constantly entertaining.
Fabrice Luchini, who looks more like Gene Wilder than a Don Juan, is debonair, dashing, confident, and completely convincing as the free-spirited Beaumarchais, a man of many contradictions. Luchini's wit and intelligence shine through while avoiding bravado. He's a character, as the actor has described, "who laughs at everything, but cared about everything."
Beaumarchais is a man who freely speaks his mind, even though it brings him never-ending troubles. Words are his gift, and he wields them with a flair and freedom that can be dazzling. In the middle of a court case, he brilliantly denounces government corruption, declaring that France has had enough, and that revolution is on its way.
It's hard to tell, however, if such displays are an exhibition of bravery or merely an exercise in the liberating virtue of insolence. His rousing courtroom demonstration brings him instant popular acclaim, but results in the Court of Lords stripping him of what he values most his title and his right to publish or mount his plays.
Also completely devoted to this complicated man is the aspiring young poet Gudin, exquisitely played by the Cesar-winning actor Manuel Blanc. Bearing a letter of introduction from Voltaire and wanting nothing more than to witness Beaumarchais' life, Gudin becomes his loyal secretary and supporter. The young poet is an idealist, a serious sort who loves words and reveres the man who arranges them and his thoughts with such aplomb. While Gudin invests his hopes and energies into advancing Beaumarchais' writings, others astutely note that the playwright will never be a Voltaire because "he prefers his life to his work."
The intrigue that follows further distracts the gifted writer from his work. An exasperated King Louis XV sends him to London as a secret agent to prevent a war with England. There, Beaumarchais meets Benjamin Franklin, an American seeking support for his people. The American Revolution is a cause with which the free-thinking Beaumarchais is most sympathetic, though his sympathies land him in a British jail, accused of conspiring with the enemy.
After the new King of France, Louis XVI, arranges his release, Beaumarchais begins smuggling guns to the American colonies. Trying to curry royal favor for the American revolt, Beaumarchais translates the Declaration of Independence. When asked by the King what the document is about, his reply sums up what motivates him: "It's about people's basic right to the pursuit of happiness."
When his funds for arms dealing dry up, Beaumarchais returns once again to writing and acquiesces to Gudin's persistent urgings to write a follow-up to The Barber of Seville, with an older and wiser Figaro. The politically explosive The Marriage of Figaro with its humorous, though sharp criticisms, is an instant hit that leaves rulers squirming and crowds cheering. As a triumphant Beaumarchais intuitively knows, "they are applauding the revolution."
Molinaro's delightfully crafted film is never heavy-handed in its portrayal of the fascinating pre-revolutionary figure who prized liberty. He's a charismatic bon vivant, a thoughtful man who prizes non-conformity and free expression, and who plays a pivotal role in setting the stage for revolutions on two continents more by happenstance than by design. A scoundrel? Hardly. The man's a hero.
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