In 17th-century Paris, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known to the world as Moliére, his stage name) wrote and performed comedies of such caliber that he and his troupe would take farce to a new level and become "Troupe du Roi," the troupe of the king. They performed in the Louvre and at the Palais-Royal, earning the respect of audiences and attacks by the Church. Centuries later, Moliére remains a much-appreciated writer whose farces are still frequently performed, the most famous of which are "The School for Wives" and "The Misanthrope."
Biographers have mapped out most of his life, except for a brief period immediately following his imprisonment for nonpayment of debt, during which Moliére disappeared. It's this window of opportunity that Laurent Tirard and co-writers Grégoire Vigneron, Fanny Valette and Jean-Claude Jay climbed through in order to imagine the screenplay for this wonderful film. They speculate that what might have happened during this low period in Moliére's life could very well have been something that's already been dramatized about his English counterpart in "Shakespeare in Love." Somehow, he could have found the inspiration and direction to begin producing works of extreme originality. And how might this have come about? L'amour.
César-nominated French actor Romain Duris gives a tour-de-force performance as Moliére, who in this film seems like a cross between Johnny Depp's pirate and the character Mandy Patinkin played in "The Princess Bride." He's a dedicated thespian, a cocky writer, a shameless hustler, and a bit of a rascal. As a character, this Moliére is an interesting and entertaining fellow, as is the nobleman who pays his debt and springs him out of prison, on the condition that he help him with his acting and writing so that he can impress the young widowed marquise, Célimîne (Ludivine Sagnier). Naturally, Mssr. Jourdain (César-winner Fabrice Luchini) has to keep this from his wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), and so just as disguises were a critical part of "Shakespeare in Love," Moliére dons the frock of a priest and pretends to be the new tutor hired to teach the Jourdain's daughter, who seems more interested in the attentions of a suitor. While Mssr. Jourdain is busy with his diversions, Moliére first comes under the suspicions of Elmire, and then finds an unexpected attraction developing between them. And a writer in love is a man inspired. There are intrigues and betrayals as the plot unfolds, all handled with a deftly light touch.
In plot and in spirit, "Moliére" is a clever farce that could have been penned by the playwright himself. Yet its breezy tone and lightly ironic music can't help but make you think of "Shakespeare in Love," while the gorgeous cinematography has the same richly saturated colors of another recent period film, "Marie Antoinette." Giles Henry manages to take your breath away with a number of shots that are so interestingly framed they could be paintings.
Tirard calls this a "dream cast," and you can certainly see why. As the farce plays itself out, the three main actors are so good that it's a joyous pleasure watching their expressions, their gestures, and the nuances of character they bring to every scene. When you add it all up--the performances, the cinematography, the period costumes, the witty Moliérian script, and the score by Frederic Talgorn--the total is, as with great art, more than the sum of the individual parts.
Mastered in High Definition, this Sony Pictures Classic looks very good for a DVD. There's a slight blurring along the edges when some of the outdoor scenes are shot through with brilliant yellows and greens, but for the most part there's very little grain and bleed.
The soundtrack is decent too--a French Dolby Digital 5.1, with a hearty bass and bright high notes. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.
There are only two extras, a short making-of feature and the director's commentary, but both are better than average. Tirard's commentary in English finds him searching for a word from time to time, since it's a second language for him, but he's fascinating to listen to. We get a complete rundown on locations, including some that the public never sees, like Marie Antoinette's theater in Versailles. The making-of feature may be short, but it's equally entertaining in that we get to see the personality of the actors behind the scenes. Luchini is like a French version of Robin Williams on the set, acting manic and cracking the other actors up.
For a two-hour film, "Moliére" breezed by. No wonder audiences loved this guy, and Tirard really captures his essence. If you don't mind films with subtitles, "Moliére" is a fun and funny 17th-century romp.