Genre: Period drama/comedy
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 CélimÃ¨ne (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.