The Farce Is With Him

"You cannot resist my Frenchness!" Photo by Jean-Marie Leroy.

The poster image for Molière, in which long-haired, handsome French actor Romain Duris is shown walking through a field of expressionist flowers, shirt unbuttoned and canvas bag slung over his back, fairly screams, "Romance novel!" Plus, y'know, it's about a French playwright. It's a marketing hook designed to bring in those who find Duris adorable, especially because he's French and is playing a classical figure—which is to say most straight women and gay men.

But if that doesn't describe you, fear not. Remember how Shakespeare in Love looked like an insufferable period romance and ended up being a smartly scripted comedy that went on to win an Oscar? This is similar, though Oscar odds are a longer shot for a foreign-language flick. (It's easy enough to imagine some French version of Harvey Weinstein exclaiming, "Sacre bleu! If zey can do zat for le Shakespeare, why can't we do the same wis our famous playwright, especially since 'e was much funnier to begin wis?") The resulting comedy speculates that the great French playwright Molière based his famous farces on actual events that happened to him.

By definition, this sort of thing won't play as well here as in France. Shakespeare is sufficiently interwoven into the fabric of our culture that even someone with no interest in stage or literature has probably heard the phrase "To be or not to be" or knows the basic story of Romeo and Juliet. But outside of drama geeks and Francophiles, Molière isn't the iconic quantity over here that he is in his home country, and it seems doubtful that stateside audiences will catch all the references to characters and situations from his writing. Not to mention that even with my very limited knowledge of French, it was clear the subtitles weren't conveying things adequately: Moments in which the dialogue was in rhyme were not translated as such, and a quip involving the similarity between "Agnes" and "ages" didn't come across at all. Where's Neil Gaiman (English translator of Princess Mononoke) when you need him?

Still, just as you don't have to know what the hell a matter/antimatter injector is to enjoy a Star Trek film, Molière works on its most basic level as a romantic comedy. It begins in 1658, when Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière, a writer/director star of comedic farces, returns to Paris after 13 years with his acting troupe, having toured the country to hone his craft. But he's having an emotional crisis: Feeling that comedy isn't substantial enough, he wants only to do dramas, though he isn't good at them, and his sponsors insist upon laughter. Then a mysterious message arrives that changes everything . . . but before we can figure out what it is, we are taken back to the last time Molière was in Paris, imprisoned for unpaid debts. There's no historical record as to exactly what happened to him after being sprung from prison by a mystery benefactor, so it's here that writer/director Laurent Tirard engages his flights of fancy.

In this telling, Molière's debts are paid by Mr. Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini, Intimate Strangers), who wants the thespian to provide him with "complete knowledge of acting and the stage arts." Jourdain has written an idiotic one-act play about Zeus and Polyxena, which he intends to perform—playing both roles himself—to impress a young lady named Celemine (Ludivine Sagnier), with whom he's smitten. However, since Jourdain is already married, Molière must be discreet and masquerade as a priest named Tartuffe, there to instruct the couple's youngest daughter in the ways of the church. Throw in a subplot involving Jourdain's eldest daughter (Fanny Valette) and the man she wishes to marry; a devious middleman (Edoauard Baer) trying to get at both Jourdain's fortune and Celemine's heart; and, most problematic of all, Mrs. Jourdain (Laura Morante, The Son's Room) falling in love with Molière's writings and eventually the man himself.

It's a little curious that some of the events Molière is not privy to somehow end up in his plays, but that's a bit of artifice you just have to roll with. Hypocrisy, deceit, and the foibles of the rich and powerful are familiar themes in his work, and they come together here, too, though the movie takes it easier on religion than the real Molière would have—the only hypocritical church figure here is Molière-as-Tartuffe, and that's because he isn't really with the church at all.

Structurally, the movie's story might be better told in a more linear fashion; there's no dramatic necessity for most of it to be in flashback other than to create a pointless element of mystery in the first scenes that's promptly forgotten about until the end anyway.

Molière's dilemma is the clash between dramatic and comedic instincts—fearing that comedy isn't sufficiently artistic, he wants to resist his natural talents, but then learns that even serious actions and events have a funny side. Nowadays, we still struggle with that perception—Oscars rarely go to all-out comedic performances, for instance. So it is that Tirard adds just a touch of tragedy for the humor to fully resonate and summons the spirit of his inspiration perhaps more effectively than director John Madden rendered the Bard in heat.


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