(French, 1996, 116 minutes, color, 35mm)
Directed by Edouard Molinaro
One early reviewer of Edouard Molinaro’s BEAUMARCHAIS, THE SCOUNDREL neatly buttonholed the film biography as "a zestful blend of AMADEUS, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, and TOM JONES." He clearly grasped the grand eighteenth century filmed-at-Versailles costume aspect of the picture. But he missed the historical dimensions of a life in art and politics that would confound most American viewers who, particularly since the 1950s, have come to believe that the two are mutually exclusive. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), whose lifespan matched George Washington’s—Beaumarchais was born a month before Washington and died within six months of him—was a biographer’s enigma. He was a musician (he taught Louis XV’s daughters piano), a watchmaker (at 21 he invented a lever system that vastly improved the reliability of clocks), and a merchant. He was, as well, a poseur (he bought the title "King’s Secretary," which gave him claim to nobility), a judge (one of the privileges of nobility), a Lothario (beyond many affairs he married three times and his first two, wealthy spouses died mysteriously), and an architect. And too, he was a political pamphleteer, an advocate for author’s rights, a secret agent (both diplomat and spy), a gun runner for the American revolution, a ship owner, and the author of two of the great plays of world literature, "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Barber of Seville." Voltaire wrote of him that he would "never be Moliere because he prefers his life to his work."
Getting anywhere near this complex life in a film would be a difficult endeavor, but French writer Sacha Guitry, who devoted years to the project of making a stage play out of Beaumarchais’s life, lent his effort to Molinaro, who decided to focus tightly on a segment (1774–1784) of the artist’s life. "I didn’t want to make a boring, historical drama," he said, "so I chose to depict ten years in [Beaumarchais’s] life, years which showed him to be a great writer and political activist. Molinaro, who is best known to American audiences as the director of the LA CAGE AUX FOLLES films, approached the Beaumarchais project as a series of "contes," or vignetted stories and sketches. Of his CAGE AUX FOLLES work, Molinaro said, "I’ve always hated this brand of vaudevillian humor. I don’t have the background nor the kind of humour needed to appreciate farce." In BEAUMARCHAIS, THE SCOUNDREL though, Molinaro approaches history as a light comedy, studiously trying to avoid his subject’s own take on a dull rehearsal of "The Barber of Seville:" "How sluggish and heavy-handed!" Beaumarchais was a master of satire and the comic barb; Molinaro seems intent on echoing that style in his own film. Indeed, Beaumarchais becomes the Figaro of his own life, a character who at one moment is the judge in a small pleas case, then is a swordsman in a cuckold’s duel, and then is arrested for anti-government agitation without ever having to leave the room.
Fabrice Luchini, who first appeared as a child actor in Eric Rohmer’s CLAIRE’S KNEE and who upstaged Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in COLONEL CHABERT, plays the roguish dramatist with a mix of hubris and humility. Never sure of his writerly abilities, he seems genuinely surprised at the success of his plays, and nonplussed by the praise of Voltaire, then the greatest living writer. Cameo turns by veteran stars Michel Piccoli (as the Prince of Conti), Claude Brially (as a priest) and Michel Serrault (as King Louis XV) are matched by bright newcomers Manuel Blanc (in a role as Beaumarchais’s literary secretary, and looking painfully like MTV actor Pauly Shore), and Sandrine Kiberlain (as Miss Willermawlaz, the playwright’s third wife). All the actors (even Jeff Nuttall as Benjamin Franklin) seem genuinely caught up in a light-hearted play (the film) that acts as a shell holding many small plays, some from Beaumarchais’s life, and some from his pen.
"Paris is dangerous," Beaumarchais says at one point in the film. "Too much poverty. Too many taxes." And just as easily we see the seeds of revolution sprouting. For all its bounciness, the film is remarkably accurate historically: there was a celebrated scandal, L’affair Goezman, in which government corruption was exposed. Both "Barber" and "Figaro" were suppressed, the first for two years, and the latter for six, after which Figaro, in 1784, was finally staged at Versailles. It is interesting that when "Figaro" was suppressed, Laclos’s "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" appeared. The plays’ author was routinely in and out of jail. The first version of "Barber" bombed, while the second was an unqualified success. The dramatist virtually lost his suspiciously acquired fortune purchasing and shipping guns to America, and was never repaid. But he was a believer in the American Revolution, and translated the Declaration of Independence. Near to the time of the death of Louis XV, he was sent on a secret mission to England and encountered the infamous Chevalier d’Eon, a transvestite spy (played deliciously— and obviously—by a woman, Claire Nebout). History shows us, though that d’Eon was indeed a man, and was the source of the term "eonism," "denoting the tendency to adopt the costume and manners of the opposite sex." So successful was d’Eon at his charade that only a post-mortem autopsy in 1785 revealed his gender.
Although the film leaves us at a high point, full of idealism and bonhomie, the French revolution and its later mutations were not so kind to Beaumarchais. He was arrested by the Directory, Robespierre’s gang, in 1792 and then exiled to Holland. His wife, his daughter, and his sister were sentenced to death in 1794. He did, in the year between get to listen for the first time to Mozart’s operatic adaptation, "La Nozze di Figaro." Returned to France a few years later, Beaumarchais died of apoplexy. It was the same year, 1799, another great French social critic, Balzac, was born.
—Donald Faulkner, Associate Director
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