If Moliere is France’s Shakespeare, then “Moliere” is France’s “Shakespeare in Love.” Or, to be more timely, France’s “Becoming Jane.”
Like those British flicks, “Moliere” weaves a fictionalized story around an artist, combining the few biographical details we know with elements of the works we love to suggest that nothing inspires art so well as life.
The French film is just as fun and frothy as the British duo. But of the three, only “Moliere” offers any real insight into how its singular artist might have transformed himself, and in doing so, transformed the world.
Director and co-writer Laurent Tirard has cleverly dispensed with the problem of veracity by setting his comedy in a period of Moliere’s life about which we know almost nothing. In 1645, a twentysomething Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, as the dramatist was then known, spent some time in debtors’ prison after his theater company went bankrupt.
No one knows who finally bailed him out, or what he did in the weeks following his release. Mr. Tirard imagines a glorious farce that gave the playwright the guts to completely change French comedy.
In this telling, Moliere (Romain Duris, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) is released from prison by a rich merchant named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini). This is no act of philanthropy: Jourdain wants Moliere, known then for his acting, to teach him to perform a play he’s written to win the heart of Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier), a winsome young widow who holds court among the fashionable.
There’s a catch: Jourdain is already married. So Moliere moves into the house as a studious young man of the cloth named Tartuffe. (Starting to sound familiar?) Madame Jourdain (Laura Morante) is not as dumb as she looks, however; nor as satisfied.
With her suspicions of and attraction to the playwright, her husband’s hilarious dilettantism and Celimene’s pseudo-intellectual snobbery, the stage is set for a satirical farce that feels as if it could only be written by, well, Moliere.
“Shakespeare in Love” also sexed up a playwright (though the raw materials were already more than there). But Joseph Fiennes’ randy bard has nothing on Mr. Duris’ brooding young dramatist. The French actor is all sex appeal, with long, wavy russet locks, his chest hair poking through the puffy period shirts, and even, dare I say it, a touch of eyeliner. (Thank Johnny Depp for all three.)
He is completely believable both as a passionate young man throwing himself into a love affair and a passionate young man searching for immortality. It doesn’t hurt that he plays the lover against the earthy but intelligent Miss Morante and the straight man to the never-quite-over-the-top-but-clearly-made-for-farces Mr. Luchini.
This costume drama has the requisite stunning scenery and resplendent clothing, though Frederic Talgorn goes above and beyond with his luscious score. The end result is a little superficial, as farces, especially period farces, tend to be.
But there’s more to Moliere and “Moliere” than that. The playwright longs to write important tragedies, despite the fact that he really is a terrible tragedian. “You were born to make people laugh,” Madame Jourdain tells him. She doesn’t serve as the simple muse that Viola in “Shakespeare in Love” and Tom Lefroy in “Becoming Jane” do, inspiring only as a source of surface details. Instead, she actively guides his genius toward the medium that will best serve it.
“Unhappiness has comic aspects you should not underestimate,” she tells her lover.
“How can I laugh about what makes me weep?” he responds. “Such a comedy does not exist.”
“Then invent it,” she tells him.
And so he does.
RATING: PG-13 (sexual situations)
CREDITS: Directed by Laurent Tirard. Written by Mr. Tirard and Gregoire Vigneron. In French with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/moliere
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS