With Shakespeare in Love the mystery was ‘how did the Bard come to write Romeo and Juliet’. With Molière, it’s ‘what happened to the French playwright when he disappeared for a few months’ in 1644. The answer in both scenarios is, of course, lurve.
In a typically French and – moreover – typically Molière fashion, it’s played for laughs and for bittersweet pathos. Fictional and farcical, with tints of tragedy, Molière’s a solid, sunny, yet serious portrait of the artist. Its masterstroke is to duck biography and conjure the essence of the plays themselves in a conjectural narrative.
In 1644, young Molière, leading a troupe of tragedians, isn’t making money. His actors yearn for comedy, but Jean Baptiste Poquelin (aka Molière) aims for higher things. But with creditors on his tail and prison awaiting, he reluctantly takes a job teaching a wealthy man – haughty yet bumbling Monsieur Jourdain - to write flowery speeches to woo a socialite (Ludivine Sagnier).
But Jourdain’s already married and Molière must assume the role of Monsieur Tartuffe, a tutor and priest to Jourdain’s family. Complications abound when Molière falls for Jourdain’s wife – who hates the austere Monsieur Tartuffe.
Molière performs the playwright’s trick on the author himself, making him wise to art, love and life through a flurry of character-forming situations - ambitions and infatuations; disguises adopted, follies uncovered…. As Molière, Romain Duris (The Beat that my Heart Skipped ) is adept if a little too pent-up and bloodless.
He’s a good straight man, though, for the more overtly colourful Fabrice Luchini - as Jourdain – a stalwart of French theatre and possibly best known for his wonderfully unctuous baddie in Le Bossu. Italian Laura Morante masters the French well as Madame Jourdain, caught between husband and lover.
Redolent of the requisite period charm, Molière seeks comparison with Cyrano de Bergerac, Le Bossu and Le Hussard sur le Toit. But it’s not as substantial or original although Cyrano is its closest cousin - if only in the ‘wooing-through-another’, the larger than life characters and the recreation of seventeenth century France.
Easily repaying a second watch, Molière is well-crafted and surprisingly subtle. Moral and mischievous, it’s a thoughtful, incisive and amusing emulation of Molière’s own work.