Frederick Wiseman was allowed to make the first documentary about La Comedie-Francaise, the French national theater and the oldest continuous repertory company in the world, founded in Paris in the late 17th Century. In the company’s prehistory, the Illustre Theatre was co-founded by Paris-born upholsterer’s son Moliere (1622-73) in 1643. Moliere’s company left to tour the provinces in 1645, and when they returned to Paris in 1658, the king granted a theater in the Louvre, the Theatre du Petit-Bourbon. This troupe became the core for the union of several companies into a new theater, officially titled Comedie-Francaise in 1681.
For this 1996 documentary, Frederick Wiseman had a backstage pass allowing unprecedented access. For the first time, a filmmaker was allowed to explore the art, commerce and all other aspects of this great theater as the company prepared for four plays during the winter of 1994-95. Wiseman spent 11 weeks filming actors, stagehands, administrative meetings, casting, set and costume design, rehearsals and performances of four classic French plays by Moliere (Dom Juan), Racine (La Thebaide), Marivaux (La Double Inconstance), and Feydeau (Occupe-toi d’Amelie). Opening and closing scenes show the troupe’s traditional celebration of Moliere’s birthday, and another birthday party is held for a 100-year-old actress who says the Comedie-Francaise “was like a religion to us.”
The camera pokes into box office and boardroom, costume and scene shops, the rehearsal hall, and the wigmaster’s area, observing the minutiae behind the magic — a technician worrying about a mask’s movable jaw, someone stringing beads, actors applying makeup at dressing-room mirrors, an actress pleading for financial aid for retirees, talk of funding cuts and budget problems, set construction, a seamstress working on costumes, actors and their director discussing Marivaux’s intentions with La Double Inconstance, administrators plotting negotiation strategies for dealing with the stagehands’ union, and theatergoers standing in ticket lines. These lengthy, non-narrated sequences are intercut with exterior shots of the theater, excursions through the streets of Paris, and sunsets seen from other Paris locations. In French with subtitles.
Subtitles:English. Hardcoded (no other option, dvd comes like that)