It is the people who are intimately familiar with the works of Moliere who will find the movie “Moliere” most rewarding, as they will recognize lines from his plays when they crop up in his life. People like me, who know Moliere wrote French farces in the 1600s but couldn’t tell you much more than that, miss out on some of the more sublime pleasures of the film.
Nonetheless, even going into it blind, there is much to admire. Written by Laurent Tirard and Gregoire Vigneron and directed by Tirard, it’s an amusing and clever film, often laugh-out-loud funny and filled with sparkling characters. Tirard isn’t overly impressed with his own ingenuity (even when he has every right to be), and that easy-breezy attitude is appealing.
Tirard re-imagines a portion of Moliere’s early career, circa 1650, before he had found success as a farceur. In this version of reality, Moliere (Romain Duris), a struggling young thespian, is hired by a wealthy buffoon named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) to give him acting lessons. The purpose? So Jourdain can perform the one-man play he’s written as a means of wooing a beautiful young widow.
Moliere is sworn to secrecy and goes to live at Jourdain’s massive estate. There he discovers that Jourdain, despite being in love with that beautiful young widow, already has a perfectly good wife (Laura Morante). Mme. Jourdain thinks Moliere is a) a priest, b) named Tartuffe, and c) there to be a tutor for her daughter. She knows nothing of her husband’s secret agenda.
Meanwhile, Jourdain’s daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette) is secretly in love with a working-class boy. Jourdain’s best friend, the sycophantic and free-loading Dorante (Edouard Baer), wants to wed his lazy son to Henriette for purely financial reasons. Oh, and Dorante is wooing that beautiful young widow behind Jourdain’s back, too.
There’s a lot happening here. Why, it all sounds like the setup for … a French farce! That is part of the movie’s charm, of course, suggesting that Moliere’s own life inspired the plays he wrote. This concept was explored brilliantly in “Shakespeare in Love” and less brilliantly in the recent “Becoming Jane” (about Ms. Austen). I eagerly await a movie about Stephen King in which the author spends his formative years fleeing from vampires, rabid dogs, and telekinetic psychopaths.
Moliere buffs will immediately recognize that Jourdain is the prototype for the character by that name in the playwright’s “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” and they will smile knowingly when Jourdain says lines that they know Moliere will eventually incorporate into that play. Idiots like me will have to have it spelled out for them later, but I’m relieved the film goes to the trouble of doing so.
I’m also relieved that the film doesn’t rely solely on the art-imitates-life gimmick. Despite the occasionally farcical situations, the characters emerge as believable figures — particularly Moliere himself and Mme. Jourdain, with whom he establishes a friendship that leads to flirtation that nearly leads to disaster. Laura Morante, astonishingly beautiful and elegant (and 51!), gives Mmr. Jourdain heart and soul, and she’s well-matched with Romain Duris as the tireless Moliere. They’re the best thing to watch in this whimsical and lighthearted story.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; French with subtitles; )