A visual and dramatic delight, Laurent Tirard’s Moliere is the most recent of a series of biopics on the French actor and playwright who revolutionized theater. Set vividly and buoyantly in the period detail of 17th century Paris, Moliere not only recounts the life of this extraordinary creative mind, but playfully inhabits his witty, charming and complex personality that in a manner that renders Moliere mysteriously fascinating and immersed in the sensibility of his time, yet fully , enchantingly accessible to cross-cultural audiences today.
Romain Duris is Moliere, also known as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who changed his name due to the scandalous reputation of actors back then, and the disgrace he might bring to his widowed shopkeeper father. The film inventively weaves together personal reflections and events in Moliere’s own life with episodes from his stories, and with one always spontaneously and vivaciously complementing the other.
Moliere and his rag tag theater troupe are riddled with debt, and that’s not his sole concern. The audience back then, not unlike today, craves lowbrow comedy, while Moliere yearns to be a serious playwright and actor focused on creating profoundly felt tragedy instead. But his serious efforts on stage precipitate scorn and ridicule in the far from reticent spectators. Frustrated in his artistic aspirations and pursued by creditors, he accepts an offer he seems unable to refuse, to assist a dim-witted, wealthy provincial textile merchant Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) in wooing a ravishing aristocratic widow behind his own lovely wife Elmire’s back (Laura Morante) by helping him write a romantic play to present to the secret object of his desire. In return, Jourdain offers to pay off the troupe’s debt, but if Moliere does not comply, the buffoonish bourgeois will have him sent to debtors prison.
Moliere reluctantly agrees to join Jourdain’s household disguised as a priest, and assist the clearly untalented merchant with pretensions to the aristocracy, in essentially making a fool of himself. Meanwhile, Moliere is also falling in love with Elmire, and his affections are soon returned. When these various exceedingly loose ends are tied up in all sorts of tragic and comical ways, a dejected Moliere returns to Paris and his troupe. There he discovers miraculous advice from a surprising source who tells him, when he asks how he can pursue his dream of creating a substantive and meaningful – and yes, tragically laced – comedy, that if it doesn’t exist, you must go about inventing it.
Moliere is a sumptuous pleasure to behold, with its rich motifs and elegantly designed period backdrops, and an infectious energy conveying the emotional sensibilities of the time. There is also splendid comic mischief at work, satirizing the hypocrisy of both the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. In one delightful, telling scene, a messenger arrives at Jourdain’s estate while he’s entertaining an impoverished nobleman, to alert him that one of his textile factories has just burned down. When the aristocrat, though far less affluent than his host, expresses shock to discover that Jourdain may be a member of the merchant class which is far beneath his own status, Jourdain quickly concocts a story that he simply has more textiles than he can use himself, so he dispenses the fabric to acquaintances. Which leads Moliere to raise an eyebrow, in his acute awareness of the inner thespian in all of us, on the confounding and marvelous world stage that is his own inspiration.
SONY Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Features: Director’s Commentary by Laurent Tirard; The Making of Moliere Featurette.