Reviewed by Tim Grierson
Using a gap in the timeline of the famed French playwrights biography as its starting-off point, director Laurent Tirards Moliere is a mediocre stab at a Shakespeare in Love-style dramatic comedy.
The film concocts an imaginary scenario in which the ambitious-but-starving young artist Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (also known as Moliere) falls into the lair of a wealthy man and his lovely wife, creating a series of misadventures that will later inspire the playwrights fertile muse to produce classic works such as Tartuffe. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down as it strains for farce and then, later, as it unconvincingly attempts to explain how pivotal moments in an artists life can inform great art.
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), whose stage name is Moliere, is a headstrong 22-year-old playwright living in mid-17th-century France, hoping to become a comedic star. But his theater troupe is bankrupt, which lands him in jail with insurmountable debts to pay.
His prayers seemed to be answered when a wealthy man named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) swoops in and settles Molieres outstanding debts, freeing him from prison. But theres a catch: To thank Jourdain for his kindness, Moliere must giving acting lessons to this talentless member of the bourgeois. Jourdain wants to use Molieres skill to help him win Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier), a fiery young local woman. But Jourdain must keep this courtship secret from his wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), and so he and Moliere conspire to pretend that Moliere is a visiting tutor who will stay with the family for a brief spell before departing. If Molieres life hasnt gotten sufficiently more complicated since being freed from jail, he also has another entanglement: He quickly falls in love with Elmire.
With its lavish costumes, tasteful score, and witty banter, Moliere aspires to be nothing more than a sophisticated souffl. But even something as frothy as this romantic drama requires a certain amount of smart, rigorous storytelling in order for the plots mistaken identities and bedroom intrigue to gain much traction. But the film fails to dig deep into its characters, settling instead for farce archetypes that come up short, especially near the movies conclusion when the frivolity gives way to darker ponderings about the nature of comedy, tragedy, and the creative process.
Duris gained attention in the States due to his starring performance as a conflicted petty criminal in 2005s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Here, as in that film, he plays a man torn between a life in art and a life of reckless irresponsibility, but he never quite captures the sense that Moliere is a scrappy young talent yearning to find his voice. Furthermore, the films light tone doesnt suit his glum, brooding demeanor.
Surprisingly, the films most troublesome role is Laura Morantes. After her exceptional turn as the dutiful, driven wife of a brilliant but burned-out pianist in Avenue Montaigne, it would seem obvious that she would flourish playing another long-suffering wife who has held onto her dignity no matter what pitfalls have visited her love life. But because director Laurent Tirard doesnt dwell too much on the psychologies of his characters, Morante must rely on her innate sense of resigned melancholy to make Elmire sympathetic. But even with that, Molieres suggestion that Elmires love for Moliere was so powerful that it spurred him on to write his greatest works doesnt hold water. Simply put, the character isnt nearly captivating or bewitching enough to inspire such feats of genius.
The other performances fail to rise above the stereotypical. Luchini is acceptable as the fumbling aristocrat with more money than soul, but the character has been imagined so broadly that he fades from memory quickly. (When Luchini is allowed one scene of real pathos, though, he does stellar, understated work.) As the snobbish and cruel Celimene, Sagnier continues her tradition of playing young flirts in the vein of her seductive turn in Swimming Pool. But, again, her character in Moliere offers little in the way of surprise.
The majority of the film takes places at Jourdains regal estate, which provides a dignified setting for all the undignified behavior going on inside. But though Tirard juggles many plot strands Moliere and Jourdain are trying to conceal Molieres true identity, Jourdain is trying to hide his love for Celimene from Elmire, Moliere and Elmire are trying to hide their relationship from Jourdain the films overabundance of story doesnt take the place of actual suspense and delightful comic twists.
As the film moves toward its finale, a characters unexpected illness haphazardly shifts the proceedings into more dramatic ground. Whereas Shakespeare in Love briskly fluctuated between comedy and drama, while simultaneously offering intriguing hints into how Shakespeares later genius was formed, Moliere doesnt have a tight enough grasp on either tone, and therefore fails to offer a window into the French playwrights inner process. The real-life Moliere cemented his legacy by crafting ostensibly comedic works that had the biting insight of full-blooded drama. Moliere lacks such insight, and the result is a movie that is neither as funny nor thought-provoking as the master it tries to honor.
Running time: 120 minutes
Director: Laurent Tirard
Production companies: Wild Bunch, Fidelite Films, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Canal Plus
US distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Executive producer: Christine de Jekel
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Screenplay: Laurent Tirard, Gregoire Vigneron
Cinematography: Gilles Henry
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Production design: Francoise Dupertuis
Music: Frederic Talgorn
Moliere (Romain Duris)
Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini)
Elmire (Laura Morante)
Dorante (Edouard Baer)
Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier)
Henriette (Fanny Valette)