Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, the father of comic satire, was born in the early 17th century. He lived a troubled life, having problems with debts and illness, and initially failed as an actor. Although he earned a law degree, Moliere never practiced law and spent his life in the theater. At the age of 22, after being released from debtor's prison, Moliere disappeared for several months. It was only after that mysterious hiatus that he started down the road to fame and success in the theater. Director Laurent Tirard's film, Moliere, is a fictionalized account of that brief period in Moliere's life.
Romain Duris (The Beat that My Heart Skipped) plays Moliere and dominates this humorous film in a strong but subdued performance. Even though at times Duris seems to be grinning at the camera, that distracts little from his subtle mannerisms and impressive screen presence. He has an excellent supporting cast, which includes Fabrice Luchini as Jourdain, a wealthy benefactor; Jourdain's wife, Elmire, played by the stunningly beautiful Laura Morante (The Dancer Upstairs); Dorante, Jourdain's friend, played by Edouard Baer; and Ludimene Sagnier (Swimming Pool) as Celemene, an attractive young widow.
Jourdain surprises Moliere by having him temporarily released from the debtor's prison so Moliere can teach him how to perform in Jourdain's own one-act play written solely to impress and attract the attention of Celemene. Since refusing to cooperate would mean a one-way trip back to prison, Moliere agrees to participate in Jourdain's scheme. It seems as if everyone in Moliere, including the dog, is trying to trick someone else. As in most stories of deception, unpredictable events take place and the most carefully constructed plans get derailed. Tirard presents this time in Moliere's life, of which little or nothing is actually known, as a time of growth and change that resulted in Moliere becoming the greatest French comic actor, dramatist, stage director and dramatic theoretician of that century. Tirard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregoire Vigneron and Gilles Henry, bases his original perspective of this era on information gleaned from Moliere's writings, thereby giving the film credibility.
Moliere is a visually exquisite film, beautifully photographed, and it also includes a spirited musical score. However, Moliere is also at times incongruent and strange. A scene in the attic of the house in which Moliere is giving Jourdain an acting lesson, by teaching him how to act like a horse, is too silly to be funny. At times, the dialog is hesitant and tentative, making the film move at a sluggish pace, but those were formal, pedantic times, and much attention was paid to details. There is too much tenderness and not enough tension to match all the deceit and subterfuge. Some movie fans will find Moliere too sweet and dainty for their tastes.
The film Moliere doesn't cheapen the man. Sometimes he appears to be a braggart who is weak and easily manipulated and with goals that are out of touch with reality, and at other times, he appears wise and skillful, but he's always committed to his art. He's a complex person, adapts his dreams and objectives to fit the situation and tries to make the best of the opportunities that arise. Moliere is more committed to his art than to his relationships.
Watching this warm and funny romantic period piece, this fictionalized account of the life of a mysterious historical figure, is a pleasurable experience as long as expectations are not too high.