There’s barely a lick of real life in Molière, director and co-writer Laurent Tirard’s account of how actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin became France’s most enduring playwright. Like the recent Becoming Jane, this is a nonbiopic that turns on a small and probably insignificant biographical fact, then treats the author’s own imagined plots as autobiography. Also like Becoming Jane, the movie has a light touch and doesn’t take its thesis too seriously. With a tighter script and another leading man, Molière might have been sheer delight.
Reviewers in both France and the United States have blasted Tirard’s theatrical gene-splicing experiment, in large part because its premise is so cheeky. The kernel of truth in the film’s scenario is that in 1644, after being imprisoned as a debtor, Molière briefly vanished. The rest of the story is derived either from the author’s plays, notably Tartuffe and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, or from the imagination of Tirard (like Delpy, an NYU film schooler) and co-scripter Grégoire Vigneron.
According to them, Molière (Romain Duris) was ransomed from jail by wealthy upstart Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who has an urgent desire to impress an aristocratic beauty, Marquise Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier). Although married to the beautiful Elmire (Laura Morante), the buffoonish Jourdain is obsessed with seducing Celimene and thinks he can do so by presenting a text he’s written at her famous salon. He wants Molière—then known as an actor, not a writer—to teach him how to deliver it.
Jourdain brings Molière into his sumptuous nouveau riche household, introducing him as a priest, Tartuffe, who’ll tutor his daughter, Henriette (Fanny Valette). Elmire is suspicious, and Henriette distracted; she’s madly in love with a young man who’s not the mate chosen by her father. Molière/Tartuffe tries to flee but is soon beguiled by Elmire. Something of an expert in farce herself, she spins a scheme to humiliate her husband, expel the deceitful aristocrat (Edouard Baer) who’s been bilking him, and make sure that Henriette gets to marry her true love. Along the way, she also advises Molière to abandon his futile ambition to become a tragedian and encourages him instead to write comedies that have “profound knowledge of human suffering.” This, of course, is advice the real Molière followed.
If the latter half of Molière is brisk and satisfying, it’s largely because Elmire and Morante take over. Tirard’s conception of the title character is a little thin, and Duris can’t fill in the blanks. In fact, the intense young actor is one of the film’s principal obstacles. Though he’s done well enough in the contemporary sort of comedy exemplified by 2002’s L’Auberge Espagnole and its sequel, 2005’s Russian Dolls, he’s most convincing as the obsessive characters of movies like 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped and the recent Dans Paris. Luchini, who was the supremely confident protagonist of another romp about a French playwright, 1996’s Beaumarchais: The Scoundrel, easily reverses course to embody the clueless Jourdain. On the evidence of this movie, Duris doesn’t share that versatility.
Perhaps the movie would have worked better without the framing sequences that open and close it, in which the playwright returns to Paris from the provinces in 1658, still intent on becoming a tragic actor—and still in need of a final pointer from his muse. But at the film’s peak, when its skilled ensemble cast is interweaving Molière’s characters, developments, and lines with Tirard’s own, the results are lively and amusing. Molière can’t boast profound knowledge of human suffering, but it does have a sound understanding of human vanity.