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Le Libertin Review by The Russia Journal
Who said philosophers can't party? Gabriel Aghion's hilarious Le Libertin is a refreshing contrast to navel-gazing French films about angsty philosophers who are bored, tired or scared of life. Vincent Perez stars as mischievous and brilliant 18th century enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot and shows us the best of all possible worlds: Someone who preaches fun and practices it too. The feel is "Shakespeare in Love" – both films show a national cultural icon letting his hair down – but with an added layer of depth.

Perez plays the energetic, fun-loving philosopher, a historical figure who co-published the first ever Encyclopedia. He has his work cut out trying to finish the entry on "Morality" before the royal censors find the concealed press at the chateau of his friends, the Baron and Baronness Holbach (a genial comic duo played by Josiane Balasko and Francois Lalande), at the same time as he leads a free-wheeling love life. He and his companions are living unfettered by the restrictions of religion and convention when their proto-hippy commune is upset by the arrival of the Baron's stuffy cardinal brother, played with great comic flair by Michel Serrault. He is scandalised and the ensuing intellectual and physical tussles when he tries to set the wayward flock back on the straight and narrow give rise to some of the film's best and funniest moments. Here the script draws on France's wonderful comic traditions running right back to Moliere and Beaumarchais (Diderot's contemporary). The smart, multi-layered dialogue mixes fun and ideas, and the fast comedy uses visual humor: Much of the time the audience laughed out loud well before they read the subtitles.

Another visitor to the chateau, Madame Therbouche, provides a complex counterpoint to the helter-skelter buffoonery and provides a change of pace and mood. Fanny Ardant's sensitive and understated performance starts out as purely comic but develops and gives pause to Diderot as she disrupts his perfect world. Here the director gives the audience a chance to catch their breath from laughing and even think a little — Diderot was a philosopher after all — about what happens if theory is put into practice unquestioningly.Shot on location at various French chateaux, the film has a bright, colourful feel of joy and opulence.

The outdoor scenes and spacious location interiors give a sense of openness and freedom, without the cloistered feel of many studio-based costume dramas in which the characters suffocate in opulent sets and dress. Bruno Coulais's smart, jivey music furthers the sense of joie de vivre.

This funny, sunny film shows that, when the French don't take themselves too seriously, their latin spirit comes out bright and lively.

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