France has been very much on my mind in the last week or two, not only because of the horrendous killings in Nice, but because I have been following the Tour de France on TV, and last night I watched again one of my favorite movies of all time, Cycling With Moliere.
I have to confess to being an inveterate francophile, which I became in 1952 when my wife and I took off for a month on a pre-war tandem bicycle that became the most memorable holiday in my life. Not that there was anything special about it: we simply rode every day from about six am to early afternoon, when we usually stopped in the camping ground of some small village --- taking advantage of the fact that in those days at least every tiny village had its campground that provided at least running water and a place to wash in, if nothing else, at a cost that was close to no cost at all. At first it was fairly rough going, across the ups and downs of the beautiful Normandy countryside, steep enough to require that we had to walk our tandem up the hills, which might take us up to an hour or more, and then coast down the other side, which we could do in five minutes. But we were young, in our early twenties, and if we were not exactly fit on takeoff, we quickly became fit, so quickly that I can remember the exact stretch of road between a small town called Bellac and one called Confolens when the southward lay of the land finally came to be in our favour, and a helpful back wind allowed us to feel that we were flying. We stayed that night in a field as usual, went to a neighbouring farmer to ask for water, or eggs, and were invited in to share their magnificent apple pie as they were gathered around for dinner.
South of Bordeaux we paused for a drink on a long, lonely road, and we read in a newspaper about an English family called Drummond having been murdered in a place that seemed to us to be not too far from where we were. But further on, in a town called Mont de Marsan, a few miles short of the foothills of the Pyrenees, that I became a lifelong francophile; a couple of ruffians, we decided to go to a local hotel, the Richelieu (which the Internet tells me is still there), for our first French meal. Wearing only shorts and t-shirts, brown as veritable berries, tousled by our battle with the winds, we were greeted in their dining room not as bums, but rather as if we were a king and queen, ushered with ceremony into the formal dining room, for a wonderful meal which convinced us that French cuisine must be the best in the world (a judgment I have had reason to modify since that day.)
We went at the beginning of August, were in France for a month, and it rained only once, giving me the entirely false impression that it never rains in France in August. Anyway, not to bore my long-suffering readers, this was the first of many trips to France in the following two decades, eventually with three small boys in tow, and my impression has always been of it as a wonderfully beautiful country whose inhabitants live a civilized, relaxed existence that should be the envy of most other countries. (I recognize this is an unreasonably favorable view of France and the French, but wot the hell!)
I watch the Tour de France every year not only because of the glorious eccentricity of the race itself, but to catch a glimpse of the beautiful little villages the impressive landscape, the many remarkable chateaux and other buildings that the following helicopters favour us with.
For anyone who doubts the eccentricity of the race, hear this: an Englishman, Mark Cavendish, has won four of the 15 Stages so far contested, taking his overall stage wins to 30 over the years, certainly making him one of the world’s leading cyclists, right? Yet after his fourth win, yesterday, he still lies 165th in the field of 185, lying almost two and a half hours behind the leader. Figure that one out, if you can. This is a race like no other on earth, 21 days equivalent to running a marathon every day, a race studded with spectacular crashes, some of them caused by the insanity of the spectators who line the road, pressing out into the path of the cyclists , waving flags that get caught in the wheels, often running flat out alongside so close to the competitors that on an early stage this year, the leader, another Englishman, Chris Froome, actually lashed out with his fist at a spectator and caught him a hefty blow on the jaw. On an even earlier stage Froome was brought down in a spectator-caused imbroglio, and had to run on foot to the finish line so as to retain his place in the race.
Finally, just a word of two about Cycling with Moliere. It is a delightfully amusing, brilliantly acted French comedy about a matinee star on TV, played by Lambert Wilson, appearing suddenly at the home on the Isle de Re off the Atlantic coast of a retired film and stage actor played by the brilliant Patricio Luchini, with the objective of persuading the retired actor to return to play Le Misanthrope together on stage. The actor was not interested, because he was offered a secondary part, but when the star suggested they could alternate in the main part of Alceste, he became interested. For day after day they rehearsed, the old actor throwing everything into his declamation of the sacred words of Moliere, and each of them often using the playwright’s words to describe their dissatisfaction with each other. The action is interrupted from time to time to allow the visiting star --- recognized immediately by everyone for his role as a doctor in the TV series --- to pretend to be examining houses with a view to buying them, a pretence needed to convince the elderly actor of his sincerity.
On one of these occasions the owner wanting to sell her house is an explosive, extremely attractive woman, beautifully played by Maya Sansa, an experienced actress I had never seen before, who denounces the very profession of acting vehemently, declares she hates actors and hurries them out of her house. Later, calmed down, she offers a lift to the old actor, and they begin to arrive at a rapprochement. Cycling around the island both actors are at different times thrown into the sea by the lack of brakes on the old actor’s bicycle…. .these quarrels are interspersed with moments of intense feeling as the players begin to approach and even like each other, while each maintaining his reserve, as befits actors, they said. Needless to say, it is the woman who unwittingly comes between them, and the ending is not a happy one. A wonderful movie that has such depths that I could see it repeatedly.
In just the same way that I cannot resist, each year, the Tour de France.