A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Laurent Tirard, 2007, 120 mins, French with English subtitles
Cast: Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, Edouard Baer, Ludivine Sagnier
With a title like Molière, one might be forgiven for expecting a straightforward biopic treatment of the great playwright's life, but Laurent Tirard's fanciful picture is nothing of the sort. Instead of detailing every event in Jean-Baptiste Poquelin's story in the standard manner, Tirard mostly focuses his attention on a specific period which has long been a matter of dispute among historians and biographers. At the age of 22 Molière was a struggling dramatic actor, whose loyal troupe was crippled by debts, and his financial problems ultimately landed him in jail - that much we know to be true - but there is little consensus on what happened after he was released.
Tirard's film takes advantage of this mystery by placing Molière at the centre of a fictional narrative. Here, Mr Jourdain (Luchini), a wealthy but pitifully dim bourgeois, bails the titular character out of prison and in return, he expects Molière to teach him everything there is to know about acting. Jourdain's aim is to stage a one-man play which will win the heart of a young maiden (Sagnier), but with his suspicious wife (Morante) on the prowl he has to smuggle Molière into his home disguised as a visiting priest named Monsieur Tartuffe. The bemused actor soon finds himself in the middle of a farcical comedy of romantic entanglements and misunderstandings - the kind of story, in fact, that he might well have written himself.
This central conceit - portraying an artist's life in the style of his own work - is a neat one, and the inevitable comparisons with films like Shakespeare in Love (1998) are apt. Tirard and his co-screenwriter Grégoire Vignon scatter references to Molière's work throughout the picture, and many of the characters he meets are seemingly the inspiration for those who would later crop up in plays like Tartuffe and Les Précieuses ridicules. The director has shown commendable ambition in taking an unorthodox approach to one of France's most iconic figures, and the whole picture is handsomely staged, with first-rate production values and costume design (although Frédéric Talgorn's incessant, overbearing score is grating).
There's one big problem with all of this, though: Molière simply isn't funny enough. The pacing is slack and Tirard's direction of the more farcical elements is heavy-handed, which often leaves the film dragging its feet when it needs to generate a fizzier momentum. The actors are all game, though, even the awkwardly cast Duris, and their enthusiastic performances help to liven the film up during its drier spells. Molière isn't a bad picture by any means, it's never less than engaging and it occasionally raises a smile, but it needed to be tighter and sharper in key areas to really work in the way it intended to. The story ends with the writer learning to stay true to his natural gift, making people laugh, but it's Tirard's struggle with this same modest ambition which makes his film such an unsatisfying experience.