Originally published in Total Spec magazine, June 2007
The 17th century French literary biopic – now there’s a genre guaranteed to keep da kidz away. Particularly when the hero has the kind of bitter, scrunched up face more suited to a League of Gentleman character than to the flowing Byron hair that pours from his head and the flouncy Russell Branded garb he prances around in.
In order to shoehorn this film into existence, writers Laurent Tirard (who also directs) and Grégoire Vigneron have conveniently located a hiatus in the biographies of France’s most feted playwright when he disappeared for several months – disputed by some academics, but hey, fuck them. This gap also coincides with the beginnings of Molière's greatness. Perfect! This gives them the chance to do some Shakespeare in Love-style theorising along the lines of the question: what if Molière's plays were based on his own experiences? And so the playwright finds himself planted right at the centre of a series of events resembling one of his own plays.
We begin with both the success and frustration of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), aka Molière. The playwright is famous and loved, but dreams of elevating his art to a higher level. How to escape the typecasting rut? As he struggles with writer’s block, and before we’ve really found our footing, we’re plonked back to 13 years earlier - and it’s here we stay for almost all of the film. An audience are cracking up at a performance by the young Molière, but for all the wrong reasons – his ponderous tragedian is bloody awful. When a pair of bailiffs turn up, Molière gets the crowd on side with a display of artful buffoonery. Unfortunately, he also gets chucked in a debtors prison. He’s fished out by eccentric but loaded aristocrat Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who's attempting to woo local sharp-tongued diva Célimène, a sort of cruel, ginger Lauren Laverne for the 1600s - and behind his beautiful wife’s back. Bungling Jourdain promises to pay off Molière's debts if the writer helps him stage a play, designed to dazzle Célimène with its brilliance. Molière, disguised as an inept priest called Tartuffe, stays at the mansion and, as he falls for Madame Jourdain, finds himself embroiled in the kind of farce he would end up writing…
The humour all sounds quite dated – all cuckolds, pratfalls and dowry-chasing scoundrels – but when it comes to laugh-out-loud moments, Molière actually succeeds in bringing home the comedy bacon. It's not always quite as funny as it thinks it is, with Duris's clowning missing the mark at times, but pitch-perfect performances from the cuckold and the cad (the toothy Luchini and a devious Edouard Baer) save it from its surfeit of slapstick and sentimentality. There are a few good moments of pathos, most memorably Jourdain's physical fall as he discovers that his wife has cheated on him; a heartbreaking minute that lifts him from the status of bumbling fool to the level of real human being.
Overall, however, the film's general notion – that Molière's experiences in the Jourdain household show him how to elevate his writing from mere silliness to a new comedy of human suffering – doesn't quite work, because the events we see acted out are mainly farce and don't plumb the depths of profundity.
Too many laughs, then? That was probably the last thing you were expecting from a 17th century French literary biopic.