LOÏC CORBERY AND DENIS PODALYDÈS IN THE SCREEN ILLUSIONYouthful Corneille as a cool crime drama, for television
Amalric's Screen Illusion/L'illusion comique
is a shortened modern dress for-TV adaptation of the play written in 1636 by the French playwright Pierre Corneille. It's the third in a series commissioned by the Comédie Française using only their actors doing plays they've been performing on stage, made away from the theater in an original format in only twelve days, and requiring that for the revised text words may be cut, but not altered or added to. The previous two adaptations were by Claude Mouriras, and by the team of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. L'illusion comique
uses a play-within-a play structure with an interestingly modern and Nabokovian twist: one man actually watches a play, deluded into thinking it is a privileged version of the real. L’Illusion comique
runs through a gamut of genres that sound like Polonius speaking of the players: pastoral followed by comedy with a farcical character at the center, followed by tragicomedy – it’s a dramatic tour de force in which Corneille, still early in his career at 28 and just starting to become famous, shows himself to be already at the top of his theatrical game. Or so Wikipedia says. It's a youthful work. But it's notably adventurous and ahead of its time and surreal, and that makes it good material for a modern transformation. And perhaps safer for Amalric, not to be risking accusations of mangling an absolute top classic, even if it's by one of France's greatest playwrights.
This is a seventeenth-century play in alexandrine couplets. That has not changed in the least, though the actors, who are trained to perform the lines on stage, deliver them with maximum fluency, and adapt to the modern settings and reinterpretations like the consummate pros that they are. The visuals are consistently and realistically modernized -- set in the present time and mostly based in the posh Hotel du Louvre, with farcical scenes in the rooms, and other action at a parking garage, a shootout happening on the roof, and a nightclub confrontation when reality finally replaces illusion. But the language remains the same as it was.
To begin with Pridamant (Alain Lenglet) has lost track of his son Clindor (Loic Corbery) for a decade and desperately misses him and (in the original) enlists a magician Alcandre (Herve Pierre), to help him see where his son is and what he is doing. The magician in this version is replaced by a concierge/security guard/detective at the hotel, and the magic visions are replaced by a battery of security camera screens and cassettes that Alcandre shows to Pridamant. The important thing is that Amalric finds something cinematic -- and perhaps also telivisory, as an equivalent, particularly, with the security cameras and screens. But I honestly did not on one viewing know the play well enough or follow this filmed-for-TV version with sufficient understanding to appreciate the transformation. It seemed a little like slight of hand to me, a series of assumptions we agree to go along with that may not in the end be all that convincing. How stupid or gullible is this Pridamant? We do not, of course, watch everything on CCTV monitors. We get a glance at one, or at a playback, and then we shift to the actors in the rooms, and have to pretend Pridamant is, what? still watching the monitor? Amalric expects us to take big leaps here, and it's all just as artificial as alexandrines or as a 17th-century play performed in 17th-century costume.
Clindor is working for a video game exec Matamore (Denis Podalydès), the man behind "Modern Warfare 2." In the original Matamore is a boastful military officer. Matamore claims to adore Isabelle (Suliane Brahim), but her father Géronte (Jean-Baptiste Malartre) plans for her to marry Adraste (Adrien Gamba-Gontard). Meanwhile Cindor and Isabelle are in love with each other. But another woman, Lyse (Julie Sicard), is opposed to this relationship because she is in love with Clidor too and wants him for herself.
Clindor is attracted to one woman but desirous of the other because she has the wealth and the power he wants. And he flirts with additional ladies. And other people are plotting whom he should be hitched to. The play is more complicated in the original than this simplified version: Amalric has cut out subplots. The main lines are easier to follow on screen thus simplified, but at times a scene seems to lack a proper introduction. And it can be hard to follow the basic action as well. I felt as I do at the opera, which is to say out of my element.
Nonetheless one can see Corneille himself as the magician; and Amalric as a meta-magician in transforming the play into a still more stylized modern version that reinvents something quintessentially theatrical into something set out in a realistic modern world. And in turn the actors, who were peroming the play in its more traditional mise-en-scène on stage every day at night while shooting the film version during the day, perform prodigies of imagination and energy and collaboration of their own. In an interview on stage at Rotterdam Almalric described the cast as his collaborators.
A Screen Daily article
suggests comparing this reworking of Corneille to Michael Almereyda’s 2000 "slacker" Hamlet
. Yes, but we know Hamlet and we don't know this play. As English speaking viewers we are lost.
We could compare Ralph Fiennes' current filmed updated Serbian Coriolanus
, which is so realistic and gritty (it took more than 12 days and a lot of explosions, more I think that were necessary) with its tattooed serbian hunks, and Fiennes' performance is so in-your-face, you forget, at key moments anyway, that you're listening to Shakespearean English, or cease to care. Not sure that happens with Corneille's 17th-century French here, but it might happen for French viewers and not for us.
Amalric is a supremely intelligent and thoughtful actor and director, but his directorial projects have not been as good as his acting, so far. His Tournée/On Tour
(SFIFF 2011; done only a little before this project) was ecstatically received in France, but seemed contrived to me, and Screen Illusion
seems another fascinating idea that unfortunately fails to engage us as fully as it engaged Amalric. But my respect for Amalric remains enormous. L'Illusion comique
AKA The Screen Illusion
, was screened for this review at a press and industry showing at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center. The film, only 77 minutes, made for French public television, will be included in the 2012 joint UniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center presentation, The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today. The public screening schedule will be as follows:*Sun., March 4, 6:15pm – WRT; *Sun., March 4, 9pm – BAM; *Mon., March 5, 8pm – IFC; *Tues., March 6, 4pm - WRT
*In person: Mathieu Amalric