A sort of mini-genre of movie has sprung up in the last few years. A movie purports—more or less tongue-in-cheek—to tell the life story of a great writer, concocting events in the writer’s life that show up later, slightly disguised, in his or her work. See 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, for example, or the more recent Becoming Jane (Austen). Molière is France’s bid to get in on that game.
Molière (real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was France’s greatest playwright, and perhaps the greatest writer of comic plays in any language. The son of a prosperous middle-class decorator, he may have taken his stage name to spare his father the embarrassment of having an actor and playwright in the family. As it was, despite his own fame and popularity, when Molière died at 51 in 1673 (ironically, after a performance of his play The Imaginary Invalid), it took the intervention of King Louis XIV to allow him to be buried in sacred ground—in a section of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized infants.
Laurent Tirard’s film opens in 1658, when Molière (Romain Duris) and his troupe return to Paris after spending 13 years touring the provinces and building a name for themselves with rollicking commedia dell’arte farces. But farce isn’t enough for Molière. They have nothing to do with real life, he says; he aspires to write and perform great tragedies. The others in the troupe say that comedy is where the money is. Besides, they tell him, you’re just not cut out for playing tragedy.
Later that day, an unknown young woman requests his presence at the deathbed of her mother. When he returns, he announces to the troupe, “Rehearsals start tomorrow. It will be a comedy.”
The film then flashes back 13 years, to Molière’s first stint as an actor, when he is thrown into prison for debts. Nobody knows who bailed him out and paid his debts, enabling him to embark on the long provincial tour that built his reputation.
That’s where director Tirard’s script (co-written with Grégoire Vigneron) steps in with a fanciful story. Molière’s savior is Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a well-to-do dilettante who offers to square things with his creditors in return for Molière’s teaching him how to act. M. Jourdain, it seems, is smitten with beautiful young Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier), and has written a play he wants to perform to impress her. There’s one hitch: Molière must stay at his estate in disguise so that Jourdain’s wife (Laura Morante) doesn’t get wind of her husband’s planned seduction. Molière is presented as M. Tartuffe, religious tutor to the Jourdains’ young daughter, but Mme. Jourdain takes an instant dislike to him.
From this point on, with Molière assuming the name of what will become the title character in his greatest play, Tirard’s film morphs into a Molièresque farce in much the same way Shakespeare in Love was a Shakespearean romance and Becoming Jane actually became an Austenian treatise on social mores in Regency England. M. Jourdain’s pursuit of Célimène is encouraged by the impoverished aristocrat Dorante (Edouard Baer), who wants to marry his son to Jourdain’s daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette), although Henriette is in love with her tutor Valère (Gonzague Requillart).
Molière, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to the beautiful Mme. Jourdain, who for her part is beginning to feel that “M. Tartuffe” isn’t as unlikeable as she originally thought. Together they concoct a scheme to thwart her husband’s plans for the unhappy Henriette.
For theater people and French literature buffs, Molière is a delightful game of spot-the-reference, with elements of many of his plays—even whole passages of dialogue—making a “first appearance” in the playwrights sojourn among la famille Jourdain. But even viewers unfamiliar with Tirard’s merry use of bits and pieces from Tartuffe, The Miser, The Bourgeois Gentleman and The Pretentious Young Ladies will enjoy the humor of it all.
In the end, of course—in keeping with the premise of this mini-genre of movies—the experience will make Molière a better writer and a better man. He will learn that comedy can have as much to do with “real life” as tragedy, and like the protagonist of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, he will understand that there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.