The Beaumarchais Scoundrel
1996, NR, 100 min. Directed by Edouard Molinaro. Starring Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Manuel Blanc, Michel Blanc, Michel Serrault.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 26, 1997
As portrayed in yet another costume drama from France, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais -- late 18th-century French playwright, wit, magistrate, spy, war merchant -- is less a scoundrel than he is a troublemaker, stirring up the masses with a revolutionary fervor avant le déluge. Whether Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel engages in a bit of revisionist history is something for the scholars to debate; the lofty pedestal upon which it places its populist title character is surely exaggerated. As a film, it's merely serviceable, relating the milestones in the seminal period of Beaumarchais' life prior to the French Revolution as if they were historical hoops through which to jump. (Of course, that's the paradoxical problem with most movies taken from the pages of history. They relate events as discrete chapters, with rarely a unifying thread, because to do otherwise might be intellectually compromising, although artistically satisfying.) That is not to say, however, that the film doesn't illuminate Beaumarchais as an interesting historical and cultural footnote; his greatest accomplishments were penning the social satires, The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, both of which found even greater resonance as operas, and -- according to the film, mind you -- he is almost single-handedly responsible for arming the American colonists in the early days of the Revolutionary War. In the title role, Luchini plays the part with a knowing, charismatic mischief that often comes across as Gallic smugness, as if to say: “It's a French thing, you wouldn't understand.” (One wonders how an actor with more gravity, such as Depardieu, would have handled the character.) Still, Luchini's presence thankfully keeps the movie from becoming too self-reverential, even when he must utter dialogue bordering on the pretentious. In the end, the rather workmanlike Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel doesn't do justice to the spirit of its provocateur. Rather than provoke the status quo, it unwittingly preserves it, just one more historical drama seemingly dominated by clothes and sets, rather than three-dimensional people.