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07 May 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Don Juan in French

If you aren't familiar with Moliere's play on Don Juan, and are more familiar with Don Juan de Marco, you might think the French would have more fun.

Yet that isn't Moliere's play "Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre." Jacques Weber, a French actor, has adapted Moliere's play and stars as the title character in the grim 1998 "Don Juan."

For those unfamiliar with the play, the play begins after Don Juan has seduced Elvire, a young woman in a nunnery. He has already lost interest and now pursues a couple who are happily in love, a love that Don Juan means to destroy by seducing the woman. Unfortunately for Don Juan, good fortune smiles on the couple and Don Juan's plans fail, leaving his boat to sink. He is saved by a poor peasant. The peasant has a lovely girlfriend who Don Juan proceeds to seduce and yet, one girl is not enough, and he flirts with another. In one scene, he cleverly plays each woman off the other, swearing undying love for both. He and his servant, Sganarelle, leave the women and attempt to return to their home. On the way, Don Juan is pursued by Elvire's brothers, determined to avenge her loss of honor and Don Juan chances upon the statue of a man he killed. He jests and invites the statue to dinner and the statue accepts.

Weber is gray-haired, with a large and imposing frame. He is husky in a way that suggests the aging of a once impressive physique into softness. His Don Juan is a humorless man blustering and trading mostly on his position for conquests in bed. He doesn't charm women as much as feed them their dreams, nourish their fantasy of conquering and reforming a bad boy. Or he plays on their greed and vanity--a peasant woman's dream of becoming a princess--or at least, a lady of aristocratic standing.

Michel Boujenah as Sganarelle is his dour servant and angry conscience. His position is thankless and his fate, to have his master die without paying him his wages, means poverty and destitution. Instead of a whine and a shrug, we have Sganarelle left destitute as a sidewalk beggar in a time before tell-all book deals on celebrities's scandalous lives. How times have changed.

Lacking the tease of a playboy or the humor of a bon vivant, this version of Moliere's play is a dark, merciless look at a harsh man who uses his money and position to lure women into bed, but almost immediately loses interest. His father disowns him. And he dies, very much alone. This is a fire-and-brimstone morality play with no sugar to make this medicine go down more easily.

As director Weber, scrapes away the charm of Moliere's play and despite the solemnity of this film, he doesn't move this into the range of horror. The statue is just a statue not a supernatural being come to fetch a man whose sins are too many and too great to leave to the normal devices.

Emmanuelle BĂ©art is a fetching Elvire and Penelope Cruz and Ariadna Gil are the two beautiful peasant women who fight over him. All three have little on-screen chemistry with Weber and on a certain level, that works.

I recently saw a stage version of the very same play at Glendale's A Noise Within and that production sparkled with wit. Don Juan was dashing and quite a bit younger than Weber. Sganarelle was a comical worm of a man, trying to express his conscience yet crumpling into a groveling coward when his master's expression turned to a frown or raised his voice in anger. The story is essentially the same as this French movie, but the comedy is much more entertaining.

Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar in the way of laughter, make the medicine go down in the most delightful way. This movie isn't the most inspired version of Moliere's play and unless you like your lessons in life served with a dose of cod liver oil, pass on this one.

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