Olivier Py brought this project into being for years, a film about Molière, during confinement. Focused on the last hour and a half of the playwright’s life before his death, The imaginary Molière condenses the tumultuous existence of this national emblem. Shot in sequence, by candlelight, in a unique setting, the film hits the screens on the 14th FEBRUARY 2024.
Theater and opera director, former boss of the Avignon Festival, Olivier Py confides to franceinfo Culture why and how he chose to tackle Molière, and he tells behind the scenes of a filming a little mad.
What made you want to make a film about Molière? ?
Olivier Py: First of all, coming back to cinema was the first thing, 25 years later practically, since my first film was a long time ago. Then I did a lot of things, theater, opera, writing, novels. I couldn’t find funding, so I didn’t get back into filmmaking anytime soon. There was an idea that had been hanging around for a long time, it was to tell the end of Molière, the death of Molière, a somewhat twilight film. I was myself, in fact, in a rather sad moment since I was leaving Avignon. I felt like something was stopping in my life. And then it was Covid and I was lucky to have 6 months of confinement, a bit like everyone else, and therefore, the time to write a scenario.
So it’s an idea that’s not new. ?
The idea is very old for me. Obviously I had several ideas. I always do that when I’m reworking on a film, I start a few tracks, and then Molière wins. It seems to me that it summed up a bit of everything I wanted to say. Both from my life in the theater, from my relationship with politics, from my relationship with death, with advancing age, going back in time, and then this extremely strange period when theater was impossible, during the confinement.
It’s also a bit of your story that you wanted to tell through the character of Molière ?
To make art, I think it is better to start from the intimate, even if we transpose, since it is a biopic on Molière. But it was the right time effect.
But then why Molière ?
Ah why Molière… Well for several reasons. First, because obviously, I identify with him because it turns out that I spent a large part of my life on stage and behind the scenes and with a troupe, waiting for the princes, having triumphs and failures, and the sadness and glory of theater life. So yes, it’s a life that I know. And I was very impressed by The Russian Ark by Sokurov, for two reasons. Firstly, because it was a sequence shot, and I have always dreamed of making a sequence shot film, and then secondly, because I find that it is a film which grips the national cultural destiny in a very astonishing way. I said to myself, hey, what would be the equivalent for France if I wanted to talk about France. And Molière imposed himself, of course, who else ?
It’s also a political film, a film about freedom, no ?
Yes, that’s not wrong. There is the end of one world and perhaps the beginning of another. In the film, the king is absent, it is this absence that makes sense. He is absent, basically, because he is doing something else, he is imagining Versailles. He dethroned Molière, whom he replaced with Lully. So, yes, there is this idea of the end of an era, the end of a world.
“Molière imposes himself even in his death, because he invents a France through language, through comedy too. It’s strange, it seems obvious to us, but our culture is based on comedy.”Olivier Py
at franceinfo Culture
This is not at all trivial. I don’t think there are many nations that are like that, born into its unity and into the unity of its language through comedy. So, there is a victory for Molière over this temporal defeat since he is abandoned by the king at that moment.
But in the end, he was the one who won, in a way ?
Yes. It was he who won incredibly over his contemporaries. He couldn’t even imagine that he would win so masterfully. He did not know he was Molière at the time he died. He thought he would probably be forgotten, considered himself merely a histrion, certainly not a great writer. He imagined that Cornelius would be entitled to his share of immortality, but not him. Well, I imagine things like that, after all, I wasn’t there, but that’s what made me dream in any case when I wrote the scenario.
Especially since the life of Molière is relatively poorly documented, no ? How did you work on the script ?
It’s certain, we know less about the life of Molière than about that of Proust or Victor Hugo, that’s certain. We don’t even have a manuscript in Molière’s handwriting or a letter from Molière. I read everything it was possible to read about the life of Molière. There are things that we know, and then things that were said at the time, things that were told, which I absorbed. We often find freedom and inspiration in a deeper examination of historical sources, even if they are doubtful. sometimes.
You actually looked into the question a lot. ?
Yes. A lot. Many with “molierists” more “molierists” than me. During the writing of the screenplay, for example, I met Christian Biet, who died shortly after working with us on the screenplay, to talk about the 17th century century. I knew a little about the world of 17th century theater century, but I discovered wonderful things, like this love story between Baron and Molière, which is perhaps only a hypothesis, but which has many sources convergent.
And that’s something you discovered while working on the script ?
Not by working on this script, but by reading the biographies of Molière. There are many, and I have read them all. They often ignore this link, but it sent us to other texts like The famous actress, a pamphlet quite well known to Molière enthusiasts, which tells the story of the love of Molière and Baron, the story of this somewhat strange menage a trois between Armande, Baron and Molière. I was able to draw inspiration from that, so I didn’t really invent it. There are many anecdotes in the film, such as the argument with Madame Laforêt, his housekeeper, who tears up his translation of Lucretia… These are anecdotes told by Grimarest. These anecdotes have never been used in contemporary biographies because we do not know if it is legend or if it is history. But it’s tasty.
Why did you choose to film in this way, in a sequence shot? ?
To represent the inevitability of death. I think we feel it. A sequence shot is like apnea, it’s like not breathing for an hour and half.
“The spectator must feel, like this, through the absence of a cut, that there is no possibility of escaping this fate which weighs on us, and whose end we know.”Olivier Py
at franceinfo Culture
And then it was possible since the action takes place in a theater, therefore a fairly enclosed and quite small space. If we had to change location, go from castle to castle, it would have been a little more complicated. There you have it, so the place lent itself to it, and it produced a sort of virtuosity. It was very, very pleasant to do with the actors. We had a lot of fun. A sequence shot is very exciting to do in the cinema, it’s even the most exciting.
Because there is a kind of tension ?
There is tension, and then we play as a team, that’s wonderful. When we do shot/reverse shot, we are not forced to play as a team. Sometimes, when you work with a star, there is a flower pot for the reverse shots. I exaggerate and I’m mean… Fortunately, there are stars who are a little concerned about their partners. Well but there, in the sequence shot, we play the team, there is no choice, and it’s very pleasant.
There is this decor too which is extraordinary, which gives the impression of entering an abyss full of crevices and of no longer being able to get out, and then this slightly dreamlike side of the very stylized decors, it was important, this work on the decor ?
Yes, it’s not a realistic film at all. The setting is a maze. In any case, we have no copy, we have no standing equivalent of the Palais-Royal, the theater where Molière played and where Molière died. We barely have a few engravings and even then, they are not engravings of the Palais-Royal, but of other theaters which resembled it. It is not an Italian theater like the Comédie-Française or the Odéon. It’s a sort of large rectangle with a tier, a leaky roof, and a lot of promiscuity. It wasn’t a big theater. The audience was very, very close to the stage. We were even on stage practically for some.