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Friday Film Review: Moliere

Moliere (2007)
Genre: Period drama/comedy
Grade: B

I wanted to do something in honor of the birthday of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin but since English language, or even English subtitled editions, of his works aren’t thick on the ground, I chose this imagining of a portion of his life during which he disappears from recorded history and anything could have happened. Director Laurent Tirard and his co-writer Grégoire Vigneron, have taken this mysterious period in Poguelin’s life and fabricated a possible scenario to explain his later success as a playwright who is considered one of the masters of comedy in European literature.

It is 1658 and Moliere (Romain Duris) plus his acting troupe have arrived in Paris after 13 years spent touring France. He is visited by a young woman who conveys a request for him to come see her mother. The action then moves back 13 years to a period when Moliere’s troupe was bankrupt and he was thrown in jail for debts. He is released after a wealthy merchant Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) bails him out. In return, Jourdain wants Moliere’s help as an acting coach.

Jourdain has written a short play which he wants to present to the object of his affection, a Marquise who, as was so popular in the 17th century, goes by a sobriquet, in this case of Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier). In order to hide what is going on from his wife Elmire (Laura Morante) and daughters, Moliere is installed in the household as a priest by the name of Tartuffe.

As he attempts to discharge his debt, Moliere observes the household and becomes involved with the various family members but most especially with the lovely Elmire – with whom he falls in love. Elmire eventually returns his feelings but circumstances are against them. Their bittersweet love and the events which play out around it will, however, serve as the basis for the later plays which cement Moliere’s place among the greats.

The movie attempts to answer the question of what serves as the inspiration/motivation for the great artists. Where do they get their ideas – from pure imagination or does real life, in some form, provide the fodder for their pens/brushes, etc? Here Tirard and Vigernon have written a script which shows young Moliere experiencing events and people who will eventually become parts of his plays. But most importantly, he is encouraged by Elmire to write a cross between the low brow farces of the day and the more highly regarded tragedies and thus develop the insightful comedy for which he’s known.

The film is beautiful to look at. Tirard admits that the costumes are made from non-period looking fabric since the actual dark/dull colors of the time wouldn’t have translated well to modern audiences. As well, the furnishings are modern reproductions intended to look new – as they would have at the time. The music is lush and sounds fantastic even if it too is not actually period. The locations chosen are gorgeous though, again, the final presentation is a compilation of different chateaux for M. Jourdain’s flashy nouveaux riches estate. But it all comes together for me in a breathtaking whole and since this is speculative fiction rather than a true biopic I’m not worried about it.

Those who have seen presentations of or read Moliere’s plays will have fun playing “name that play” throughout the film. But it is also accessible for those who have little or no knowledge of Moliere or his works. The characters and the situations they’re in are as relevant today as they were then. We have the straying husband who ignores his wife and family for a pretty bauble of a woman, worship of the celebrated and powerful people, a neglected wife who wonders if she’s past the point of experiencing love, young lovers who yearn to be together and a young, talented man who initially despises the untalented bore for whom he’s forced to work only to discover sympathy for him and the willingness to give up the woman he loves because he does love her so much.

Duris plays Moliere with charm and smoldering glances. Though he’d never done much physical comedy, he studied hard and the results pay off in the humorous scenes. I could also believe in his portrayal of Moliere’s transformation from angry and impatient to a more mature man willing to sacrifice his own happiness for that of others. The wonderful Fabrice Luchini underplays Jourdain perfectly. His facial expressions are worth watching the film just for themselves. And his final understanding of just how the world to which he’s aspired views him is poignant and moving.

Laura Morante is fabulous as Elmire. She is supposed to be mature, strong and wise though just at the point when she wonders if love has passed her by. When she realizes it hasn’t, she grasps it and enjoys it. Watch for the mirror scene during which she and Moliere express the growing attraction between them and later when she points out to Moliere where his true talent lies and urges him to write the kind of comedy he claims doesn’t exist. Morante is beautiful as the muse who inspires.

Ludivine Sagnier sparkles as the bright, cruel butterfly surrounded by her salon of sycophants as does Edouard Baer who portrays a cash strapped Count playing Jourdain for all he’s worth – and it’s a lot. Theirs are the roles seen in so many Moliere plays which skewer the morally bankrupt aristocracy before whom, nevertheless, the lower classes must still bow and scrape during this time.

I liked the movie the first time I saw it. I liked it even better the second time I watched it. And after having listened to the commentary tract, I understand it better still. Tirard makes it entertaining and informative to listen to and also explains some things which perhaps mainly French audiences would immediately grasp. The film is funny, bittersweet, intelligent and made me smile as well as cry. No, it doesn’t have a HEA romantic ending but it has a moving one.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

22 Comments

  1. cate
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 04:12:27

    It’s lovely to see this gem of a film here.
    There are some things that the French do brilliantly, & this sort of costume drama is one of them.
    The fact that it’s subtitled takes nothing away from the subtlties of the film. The performances are outstanding, with Edouard Baer stealing every scene he’s in !
    Jayne, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve GOT
    to see Ridicule, another French classic.
    As good as Moliere is, Ridicule is even better – it’s set just prior to the start of the French Revolution.
    And if anyones missed it…Gerard Depardieu’s stunning turn as Cyrano de Bergerac….& have your hankies at the ready if you do see it !!!!

  2. Jayne
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 05:14:23

    @cate: Patience grasshopper….I have plans for Cyrano. Well, actually make that lots of Cyranos.

    And you’re right, “Ridicule” is wonderful too. I haven’t watched it since I started doing these reviews so maybe it’s time for a brush up. The opening scene is certainly memorable!

  3. cate
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 05:25:40

    @Jayne:
    Have you not learned yet Sensei,that I have all the patience of a 5yr old whose O/D’d on sugar !

  4. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 07:26:10

    Great film, I saw it a few years ago.
    Yes to “Ridicule,” but what about a few classics as well – “La Belle Et La Bete” (forget Disney, this is the one), “French Can-Can” (made by Renoir’s son), and, sigh, “Au Bout de Souffle.” Oh I fell deeply in lurve with Jean Paul Belmondo after that one! And “Boudu, Saved From Drowning.”
    And Depardieu’s films, not just “Cyrano,” but the superb “Danton.”
    Sometimes we forget just how important the French film-makers are to the history of cinema, and how much Hollywood stole from them. Even Disney, in the candelabrum, stole from “La Belle et La Bete.”

    “Moliere” is a great film, though. I loved the wash of colours in this one, reflecting the brilliance of the plays.

  5. Jayne
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 08:26:25

    @Lynne Connolly: I had forgotten I’d watched – or tried to watch – “La Belle et La Bete” but when I went to Netflix, I saw I’d graded it with 2 stars. Hmmmm. I will put “Danton” in my queue.

  6. Christine M.
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 08:55:25

    Just FYI, it’s Ludivine Sagnier, and not Ludivigne :)

    Also, great review!

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  8. Jayne
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 10:12:41

    @Christine M.: Whoopsie. Got carried away with my ‘g’s.

  9. Estelle
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 13:25:35

    That reminds me that I need to see this movie. I’ve always wanted to but never got around to it.

    If you like that period in French history, there’s also the older movie Marquise (1997). It’s not a masterpiece but does offer an interesting perpective on playwright Racine. He was more into tragedies while Molière took care of the comedy side of things.

    Still French but not the same period, there’s also “Il ne faut jurer de rien” (2005) with Jean Dujardin but I don’t know if it’s been translated or even subtitled. It’s a very funny story about a rich merchant who wants to see his wastrel of a nephew marry the daughter of an impoverished noble family (it does sound familiar to those of us who read romance novels). The hero makes a bet that he’ll be able to seduce the girl easily but he’s actually bitten more than he can chew. It’s not big on historical accuracy but it’s been done on purpose and I always have a good laugh when watching that movie.

  10. Jayne
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 13:55:56

    @Estelle: Thanks for the recs. Unfortunately, neither one appears easily available for me but I’ll keep them in mind.

  11. Laura Florand
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 16:33:15

    Great review, Jayne! I love all French films set in the 17th century to a certain degree because I just love that period. And you’re right, even when the story line can sometimes seem a tad melodramatic, the costumes and scenery are so beautiful.

    Have you done a review of Vatel? Just curious what you thought, if so.

  12. Merrian
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 19:19:10

    @ Estelle I saw “Il ne faut jurer de rien” (2005) with Jean Dujardin on the SBS Channel here in Australia a few years ago with sub titles, so it has been done. I loved it too.

    Loved the ‘Moliere’ movie which SBS also showed. SBS is a free-to-air public broadcasting service specialising in non-English speaking movies, news and current affairs and TV shows (eg.the many incarnations of Inspector Rex, cop shows and thrillers from the Scandanavian countries). Thanks to SBS I have fallen in love with Korean ghost stories and did you know there is Korean version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’? It is just as sumptuous in the costuming as the English and French movies. I don’t know what era they chose but the traditional Korean clothing and hairstyles eg. the married ladies big plaits, just have to be seen. In the end the winter landscape is harsh and beautiful and reflects the ends of the characters.

  13. Christine M.
    Jan 14, 2011 @ 21:23:24

    @Estelle: I’ll definitely have to check this film out. Thanks for the rec, I’d never heard of that film and I love Jean Dujardin.

  14. Merrian
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 03:14:38

    “Il ne faut jurer de rien” (2005) mentioned by Estelle is a great film. I would also highly recommend the Korean version of Dangerous Liaisons. “Untold Scandal” (2003)is directed by Je-yong Lee and set at the end of the Chosun dynasty in the 18th century. The winter scenes at the end as coldness encloses the character’s fates are beautiful and you feel the ice filling their lives as does the season.

  15. Jayne
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 04:37:39

    @Laura Florand: I’ve seen “Vatel” and remember it being lushly beautiful but it’s been 5-6 years since I saw it. Another one for the Netflix queue!

    I also remember thinking that hosting the King and court would be a mixed blessing – you’d catch his eye but go bankrupt doing it. I guess that’s where getting a lucrative court position out of the visit would come in.

  16. Jayne
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 04:41:19

    @Merrian: I’ve had “Untold Scandal” in my queue for a while now. And, oh look, it’s available for streaming now!

  17. cate
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 04:53:01

    I have a candidate for your Netflix queue
    Jayne, seeing as you’re having a spot of French leave.! And it’s La Demiselles De Rochfort aka The Young Girls Of Rochfort(in the UK anyway ? USA) .
    It’s a French musical….Music by the the sublime Michel Legrand , starring Gene Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, & George Chakiris !
    It’s fabulously shot, has the most gorgeous colour palette of costumes ever…French chic rocks in this flick!
    And the most utterly barking plot that side of the Channel….Great for a cold winters evening, & it’ll have you booking your holiday to France faster than you can say ” two croissants please”
    Finally….Lynne Connelly ..Jean Paul Belmondo as a young man, PHWOAR just PHWOAR !!!!!

  18. Jayne
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 06:28:47

    @cate: Okay, I’m game for a barking plot. And watch for next week’s entry into my French leave – it’s a mystery/thriller/suspense done French style!

  19. cate
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 07:56:47

    @Jayne:
    My euro’s on 8 Women !

  20. Laura Florand
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 16:34:07

    Mixed blessing in more ways than one. I can’t remember for sure, but Vatel the film might blend together two separate great banquets Vatel was famous for. He was in charge of the Fouquet banquet where Fouquet hosted Louis XIV at Vaux-le-Vicomte so well that he got arrested for it and lost everything, was imprisoned for life. The King realized his Superintendent of Finances was doing awfully well for himself. :) Actually, he had turned against Fouquet before, but the banquet was considered to have sealed his fate.

  21. Laura Florand
    Jan 15, 2011 @ 16:35:03

    But some of the principal events in Vatel the film actually occurred at a later banquet (historically). I can’t remember if the film conflates the two.

  22. Estelle
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 03:00:42

    It’s good to know that others have heard about “Il ne faut jurer de rien” and it’s great to see French movies being broadcasted abroad, even if it is in a limited way.

    I second the rec for the Korean version of Dangerous Liaisons. As for the period, I can’t remember right now but Korean fashion didn’t change much over the centuries. The “Hanbok” (what the women wear) has been around for a long time and hairstyles have been set a few centuries ago by a king who thought women wore their hair in too extravagant a fashion and wanted to have more sober dos: it’s a plait with a red ribbon for unmarried ladies and the married women wear it either in those huge crowns that must weight a ton or in a simple knot with a long ornament in it (it’s also a symbol of status depending on the quality of said ornament).

    For my part I really love the costumes and hairstyles of earlier periods. They were just so gorgeous and elaborate before the first millenium. I don’t know any movies set in that time period but there have been quite a few dramas made which are well worth watching.

    Korean dramas and movies are a treasure trove. I’m completely addicted to them and it’s a good thing for me that more and more of them are becoming available from official chanels with english subs.

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